Avoiding the Fear Factor

A Better Way for Christians to Operate in the Public Square

F. Brent Leatherwood

Most political operatives worth their salt will tell you, in just about any recent election, the number one motivating factor for voters is fear. Usually, this manifests itself in proclamations that the opposition (usually called “our enemies”) want to take away something from you: a right, a deeply held value, a cultural icon. And we are told that the only proper response is to elect “a fighter.” 

Conveniently, the campaign talking to you at that given moment has the candidate who should be your preferred combatant. The candidates themselves will often play into this hype machine by telling everyone they can that “this is the most important election of our lifetime” or “we’re the last line of defense before our nation is forever changed.” Voters are left in a state of hyper-motivation for what they have now been conditioned to believe is an existential war. 

Here’s the problem: We like it. Great campaigns make voters feel as though they’re part of a movement. Something more than just themselves. But in this social media era, where all of us are made to feel part of a performance––in order to get likes, retweets, and shares––we are not content to just cast a vote. We want a role to play in the battle, and so we do our part on behalf of our preferred candidate by flaming, dragging, or canceling our opponents online.

 All of this should cause reflection for Christians. I know a good number of Christians who may not agree with the tactics, but do agree with the purposes. Unfortunately, there’s not much basis in Scripture for an ends-justify-the-means application of Christian ethics to voting (or any activity for that matter). But we have to understand that, in many ways, we are, as well as our neighbors, being manipulated by very sophisticated, technologically savvy campaigns. 

Instead of aligning with the hope we have in a risen King, these efforts are actually causing us to look elsewhere for help. Tempting us to, at least temporarily for the purposes of an election, place our faith in an earthly prince who will fight for whatever policy preference we might have.

How Christians Can Think About Election Season

So what is an appropriate way to process all that is thrown our way in an election season? Others may take a different approach but, as a Christian who is a Southern Baptist, I would start here: 

First, in Matthew 5, Jesus is sitting with his disciples, surrounded by a throng of interested onlookers, and he issues this charge: “You are to be the salt of the earth . . . (and) the light of the world.” Salt was—and still is—a valuable element at the time for any number of reasons, including its attractive qualities. It not only enhances the taste of food but it also literally draws water to it (think of when your salt shaker gets clumpy in humid temperatures). I believe Jesus had this aspect in mind when discussing this. He wants his followers to be unique in a fallen world in order to pique the curiosity of those around us so that a channel can be created for the Living Water (John 7) to flow. 

Much is the same for being a light. Ships need beacons in order to navigate in the dark. What better illustration could there be for helping those around us see not us, but the reason for the hope inside of us (1 Pet. 3:15). 

Finally, I would submit that Article 15 of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 outlines some helpful guidance for us navigating this space. Our convention specifically envisions Christians working for the good of the social order. A predecessor of mine stated it this way: “Believers in union with Christ will share His priorities.”1https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/baptist-faith-and-message-article-15-the-christian-and-the-social-order/ That’s something we all should affirm. Far too often, the reality is, we try to compartmentalize our political views away from the gospel and other areas of our life (a point that Josh Wester highlights in his article for this issue). But I think, deep down, we know that’s incorrect. The gospel should inform all aspects of our lives, even the candidates we support and what we do at the ballot box. Some will read that and say that’s too basic and a dodge from real life scenarios that have and will continue to play out in elections. 

But, I think the power of the gospel is its simplicity (1 Cor. 1:18-31). This simple message of Christ’s resurrection has the power to transform lives and structure our political witness. When we declare that “Jesus is Lord,” we are acknowledging that neither political party is. Our political activity is demonstrated through the fulfillment of the Great Commission’s (“Go and make disciples”) recognition of Jesus’ authority and the Great Commands’ (“Love God and love neighbor”) imperative to promote true human flourishing.

Christians entering the public square do the most politically powerful thing they can when they remember that politics is not ultimate, because we serve a King whose kingdom is coming and where all things will be made right. We don’t withdraw, but we also don’t twist our souls in service to temporary political realities. It is in our witnessing to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and all the moral implications of that moment in history for our life that we exercise our true political power.

F. Brent Leatherwood serves as the president for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Since September 2021, Brent served as the acting president of the ERLC, where he provided steady leadership for the organization’s staff and continued the mission of the ERLC during the interim period. Prior to serving as acting president, Brent served as the chief of staff at the ERLC, as well as the entity’s director of Strategic Partnerships. He brings an expertise in public policy to his work, having been the executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party, the director of Communications and Policy Strategy in the Tennessee General Assembly, and working for several years on Capitol Hill. Brent is a dedicated member of The Church at Avenue South in Nashville, Tennessee, where he has served as a deacon since 2014. Brent is married to Meredith, and they have three children.