Presidential Pep Talks and the Religion of Fear: How did an Uncontroversial Speech Become a National Controversy?

On Tuesday of this week, my six-year-old son came home from school and announced to my wife, “The president talked to us on the TV! He told me not to give up!” He obviously thought it was pretty amazing. After all, the president usually just gives these incomprehensible speeches about stuff that no kid cares about. But on this day, the president of the United States had taken time out of his schedule to talk to kids.

My wife, who’d been worried that our son wouldn’t get to watch the president’s speech because of the public furor surrounding it, smiled delightedly and asked what else the president had said to him.

He didn’t respond with something like the following: “The president wants me to convince you that a public option is essential for effective health care reform.” Nor did he say, “President Obama thinks the government should control everything, and he wants me to help make that happen!”

What my son said was this: “Umm… if you don’t have any money, you can work really hard and still get a good education.”

The speech was full of these sorts of things. Work hard. Take responsibility for your education. Don’t give up, since even those with challenges can make it if they take advantage of the opportunities this country offers. In short, it was utterly uncontroversial, just as the Obama administration had promised it would be.

And yet, in the week leading up to the speech, the dominant attitude where I live (in Oklahoma) seemed to be one of moral outrage. How dare he use his office to indoctrinate our children! How dare he make kids into pawns in the pursuit of his socialist agenda! This is like Nazi Germany all over again!

How exactly did the promise of a welcome-back-to-school pep talk become the occasion for such fear and anger? What made it possible?

Back in the early 1990s, when the first President Bush gave a similar speech to schoolchildren, there were some partisan grumblings from Democratic politicos (albeit far milder—no mention of Nazi Germany). But these grumblings didn’t stick. There was no national controversy. Parents weren’t inundating administrators with phone calls threatening to pull their kids from school in order to protect them from Bush’s efforts at political indoctrination.

But this time that’s exactly what happened. And in response to the controversy and the barrage of outraged parental phone calls, many school systems decided it was safest not to air the speech at all. Others required that alternative activities be arranged for children whose parents refused to permit their kids to be subjected to an encouraging presidential pep talk.

The evening after the talk, the local news station I was watching aired a report on the event, complete with footage of a school assembly hall where teenagers were gathered to watch the speech; and where many were yawning, side-talking, and even nodding off. Apparently they weren’t as excited about it as my son was. Not surprising, since the president’s message was one they’d probably been hearing from teachers and parents and civic leaders since they were in the first grade.

But the most memorable part of the news segment was a brief interview with one mother who, after confronting the uncontroversial character of the speech, declared that this is how indoctrination starts: subtly at first, lulling us into a false sense of security. Apparently, she was under the impression that Obama is planning regular addresses to our kids, and that this was just the sneaky warm up to a full-throttle socialist propaganda campaign in schools across the country.

Who’s Indoctrinating Whom?

Of course, no such thing is in the works. But the mother in the news report had been so effectively steeped in a message of paranoia and hostility that even the most benign speech couldn’t dislodge her moral outrage.

In part, the difference in how the nation responded to the Bush and Obama school speeches lies in important developments within the mass media. In Bush’s day, there wasn’t a 24-hour news station devoted largely to explicitly criticizing the sitting president, nor was there a blogger-riddled Internet through which the banners of “propaganda” and “indoctrination” could be taken up.

But the fact is that even given access to these new media outlets, Obama’s right-wing critics wouldn’t have achieved their aim without a sufficiently receptive audience. Somehow the decision to use the office of the presidency in one of the most benign ways imaginable—to encourage our kids to study hard and stay in school—was represented as a dire threat to our children. And people bought it. The patently absurd idea that Obama would use the opportunity to indoctrinate kids into his “socialist agenda” was swallowed by a number of conservative parents across the country.

Elsewhere, I’ve argued that it’s unlikely that those who deliberately fuelled the outrage really thought he’d try to sell controversial policy ideas to school kids. Instead, it’s far more likely that part of their worry was precisely the fact that the speech was almost certainly going to be uncontroversial. So uncontroversial, in fact, that Obama would come off as a leader who shares many of the same values as everyone else, and who genuinely cares about the success of the next generation. The speech would be, in effect, an opportunity for Obama to stake out common ground across political divides, and affirm in front of the whole nation that no matter how serious our differences about health care reform and foreign policy may be, there are crucial things that we all agree on, a base of solidarity on which we can build; such as the importance of working hard and getting a good education.

In short, America would be presented with an image of Obama that could not realistically be identified with the sinister portrait of him that the extreme right wing of our country is trying to paint. Likewise, America would be presented with an image of itself at odds with the stark polarization, the irreconcilable “blue state/red state” dichotomy that only serves the interests of extremists. And so we might say that these extremists were worried that their own attempts at indoctrinating their constituencies might be compromised.

Fear Sells. But Why? Who’s Buying?

And so it is no surprise that the agitators did what they did. The real question is why so many were swept up in the paranoid vision that these agitators offered them. What is the lure of such a vision, and why does it take hold?

With respect to such questions, I think it is impossible not to consider the influence of religion. Religion is an important influence on culture, and so has the power both to facilitate and to counteract the kind of paranoid hysteria that greeted Obama’s speech.

In my philosophical work on religion I’ve argued, following Plutarch’s lead, that there are two dominant models of religion (with actual religious communities tending to be a paradoxical mix of both). Plutarch actually reserved the term “religion” only for one of the models, calling the other “superstition.” But in our contemporary setting, it may be more helpful to refer to them as the religion of hope and the religion of fear.

The religion of hope is beautifully embodied in the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and is concisely expressed in his conviction that “beneath the harsh appearances of the world there is a benign power”—that is, a transcendent benevolence that cares about the good and supports those who work for justice. A key feature of the religion of hope is that, because the root of creation is good, no existing thing is essentially bad or evil. Most significantly, this means that every person is a product of a benevolent creator and so not only has inherent value and dignity, but has the capacity within them for moral goodness.

No one is irredeemably evil. No one is so far gone that they have been rendered incapable of compassion; even if, as may be the case, this capacity has been buried beneath layers of prejudice and fear. Because all of us are products of the same divine benevolence, and because our divine creator is a real power moving within all of us to nurture what is good, we can enter conflicts in the hope that we can reach and connect with our opponents’ best selves, that fundamental part of who they are that is responsive to the needs of others.

This is not to say that evil systems and forces aren’t real, and that people do not become deeply entangled with them; nor that injustices can be overcome without struggle, or that there will never be a need to apprehend and incapacitate dangerous people; nor that our duties to protect those in our care will never call us to harm an aggressor in their defense.

But it does mean that even our most dangerous opponents will be seen as fellow human beings with a capacity to care about the good. Those who live by the religion of hope are therefore more inclined to pursue reconciliation even when there are risks, and more likely to forgive even when a past wrong is truly grave.

And when and where the religion of hope prevails, it is difficult to foster an attitude of paranoid hysteria. Even when threats and injustices are real, those who live by the religion of hope look for ways to overcome those threats and injustices by building and recognizing connections of common humanity. They are not easily convinced by those who fabricate dangers out of thin air, and they are not likely to view an occasion for staking out common ground and shared values as itself a danger from which our children must be shielded.

On the other hand there is the religion of fear, Plutarch’s “superstition,” which he takes to be fundamentally about appeasing dangerous supernatural powers. On this view of religion, when things go wrong the ultimate explanation is that someone somewhere has angered the divine power that reigns over the world like the ultimate tyrant. God’s inscrutable will must be obeyed on pain of harsh retribution. And this retribution does not merely strike the guilty.

If things go badly for the nation, if terror strikes down the Twin Towers or a hurricane batters the coast of New Orleans, or if a tornado sweeps through Minneapolis and blows out the windows of the Electric Fetus music store, it is because God is displeased. Someone has done something wrong: perhaps the gays or their allies, or the feminists, or the ACLU, or others whom Jerry Falwell famously implicated in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And the misbehavior of these enemies of God is a threat to the welfare of all. God withdraws His favor and protection from a nation that fails to be sufficiently obedient. And so we must become a God-fearing nation, with a common vision of what God desires, or our country will fall into ruin.

And so the religion of fear leads to the idea that the enemies of God must be identified and defeated. In the United States, the political arena has come to be seen as one of the key battlefields: God’s enemies must be voted out of office. If not, the nation itself is in dire jeopardy. In this way, then, the religion of fear becomes a powerful tool for motivating people to serve partisan political agendas. If one party or faction represents the will of God, then appeasing God requires religious communities to throw themselves into politics with the aim of ensuring that the right faction wins. And if the wrong faction wins, it’s a disaster. The enemies of God have won. The divine tyrant will withdraw His favor. And all manner of evils and horrors will begin to take hold.

When and where the religion of fear dominates, party politics can become a template onto which stark in-group/out-group ideologies can be imposed. And the stakes of political contests can be represented as monumental: The fate of the world depends on the right side winning. And if the wrong side achieves ascendancy, the message is clear: Be afraid. Be very afraid. The wrong side is not populated by decent human beings like the rest of us, but by sinister characters in the grip of evil.

And so if the wrong side gains the presidency, and then the president decides he wants to speak to our children, it only makes sense to be afraid. It only makes sense to keep our children home. No good can come of this enemy of God currying favor with the most impressionable among us. Who knows? This man may lure our own children over to the other side!

So, are these the forces that were at work last week, when a presidential back-to-school address was turned into an occasion for national controversy and widespread fear? It may not be the whole story, but I suspect it’s a big part of it.