One of the most fascinating aspects of the Coronavirus that I have seen is the way that the interests of many religious leaders and political leaders has coalesced into a shared interest in leading people to worry while at the same time disclaiming any such interest. What is the motivation that would lead people to worry, and how can this motivation be exploited by various parties for different but not entirely hostile ends? At the outset I would like to comment that the politics of worry is not partisan in nature. The paranoid style of politics has been an aspect of American culture from colonial times, and different aspects of that paranoia are manifested differently based on one’s worldview. There are a great many people who think that the paranoid style of politics is simply a problem of the right wing, where there is obvious paranoia about the legitimacy of the behavior of government and frequently hostility to the existence and authority of government where it counteracts the desires and freedoms of the individual, or the paranoia about immigration and the fragility of the American national culture. That said, there are clearly paranoid aspects to the politics of the left, where the desire to protect the right to life of unborn children is viewed as leading to some sort of totalitarian Handmaiden state, or where moderately conservative populist leaders are viewed as Nazis, or where decent religious folks are viewed as harbingers of an American inquisition against sinners and unbelievers. Paranoia knows no partisan divide, even if what we are paranoid about differs based on where we stand and what we view as threatening to our worldview.
It would be best, of course, if we were to free ourselves from the paranoid style of politics altogether, but it appears as if this particular approach is hard-wired into ourselves because of the sort of history that we have had over the course of many centuries as well as the sort of baggage that people bring with them when they enter the United States as estranged members of other cultures. Nearly every cultural component of America’s national identity contains with it some sort of paranoid approach to history. Again, what people are paranoid about differs widely, but paranoia is at the base of it all. Religious pietists bring paranoia about government acting against minority sectarian religious beliefs, because that is the historical experience they bring with them from the old country. Many immigrant populations bring with them the historical memory of oppression or of attempts at genocide. Others bring with them the history of slavery and other forms of injustice. Still others bring with them the experience of corrupt fascist or Communist regimes. All of this is baggage that leads people to be paranoid and to worry about threats to the freedom that they wish to enjoy here in the United States. Liberty is always under threat or under possible attack. The garden must be guarded from serpents who would seek to steal that liberty away, whatever liberty is sought or desired.
Is it possible to overcome that kind of worry that is brought with us through ancestral instruction or personal experience? It is likely that if you spoke to anyone long enough that they would fear something that the government could do or could refrain from doing if it was in the wrong hands. I suspect that this particular universal tendency to worry is not present in all societies, but it may be a quality of human life and not merely that of American life. Obviously my own experience leads me to see it particularly strongly in the United States, but I have seen the paranoid style of politics at hand in places like Thailand, where the great mass of people appear to show little or no interest in politics because of the danger of doing so when one’s views are going to be hostile to that of the royal-military complex. No doubt it exists in other places as well. Overcoming it is by no means an easy thing, because there are positive aspects to having the paranoid style of politics, such as being alert and aware to possible threats to one’s well-being, and being motivated to rise up in such cases, and so there is often not a desire to completely overcome that sort of early-warning system of possible oppression and danger, even if it leads people to be far more fearful and anxious than they would otherwise be.
It is notable that the most most common command in the Bible is to be strong and of good courage, to have trust and faith in God. And yet little is further from our nature. How is this courageous faith in God to work itself out? Are there things that we should be worried or careful about? How does God’s will work itself out when we put our faith in Him? These are not easy questions to answer. Good and decent people will disagree on what sorts of caution are wise to show and what sort of caution reflects a timid and cowardly heart that lacks faith and confidence in God. Indeed, it is the boundary between wisdom and courage that tends to excite a great deal of the disagreement we have about faith and trust and courage. This is a boundary that each of us must work out for ourselves, and struggle with, over the course of our lives. But however much or little we are able to overcome our own native courageous folly or timidity, it is worthwhile to know that there are powerful interests wherever we turn that seek to either harness our courage for their ends or to increase our anxiety and timidity for their own benefit. And their interests are not always our own, nor are our own interests always what is best for those around us.