Naming, claiming and taming our national fears |

Naming, claiming and taming our national fears

Rev. Jack Van Ens

The Red Scare terrorizing our country after World War II fed on rampant insecurity afflicting our nation’s psyche. Citizens shuddered as they stockpiled emergency rations in nuclear bomb shelters. Critics painted Tinseltown red. They caricatured Hollywood as a boiling cauldron of communism, spewing hate against our dear nation. Americans shivered when they heard air raid sirens, anxious that Soviets had launched missiles with nuclear warheads against us. Into this fearful maelstrom charged Joseph McCarthy, Wisconsin’s junior senator. He drank too much booze, frothing with bitter denunciations against Red sympathizers. He alleged spies in espionage rings infiltrated out government. They controlled major universities, lurking among movie producers and stars of the big screen, too.The movie “Good Night and Good Luck,” the sign-off Edward R. Murrow used, shows how paranoia gripped our nation. Many willingly surrendered personal rights to curtail the Red advance. They gave the benefit of the doubt to bellicose McCarthy who Murrow confronted in 1954. This movie runs in black and white with vintage film clips of McCarthy woven into the fear-racked script. Black and white vividly contrasts the conflict between good and evil, Old Glory blunting the sharp Communist sickle, with patriotic Red-White-and-Blue battling the Red smear. Dostoyevsky used religious analysis to describe the titanic battle between the Free World and those enslaved behind the Iron Curtain. “The problem of Communism is not an economic problem. The problem of Communism is the problem of atheism.” Americans did not want seminarian-turned-godless dictator Joseph Stalin to trample their godly heritage. McCarthy fed paranoia sweeping our nation. Citizens feared the Red Scare winning the war of atheism over Christian belief.As we enter a New Year, another sinister enemy lurks. President Bush defends his secret surveillance program because he fears that some of our citizens, like those in the movie industry during the 1950’s, might be collaborating with the enemy. He believes the Constitution grants him presidential power as commander in chief of our armed forces to snoop on U.S. citizens, wiretapping conversations overseas without court approval.Fear of Arab terrorists detonating their bombs in the United States is so grave, maintains President Bush, that unusual measures must be taken in naming the enemy and taming it. Bush deems the court system authorizing wiretaps too cumbersome, even though this secret tribunal deals with emergency threats. The president is determined to eradicate terrorism, even if this means curtailing citizen rights for the country’s good.Fear that is not tamed spreads its contagion. A dominant major message swirling during the first Christmas had to do with holding our fears in check. Angels advised the priest Zechariah and mother Mary to “not be afraid” (Luke 1:13, 30). Angels sang this freedom from fear theme to scared shepherds (Luke 2:10). Our president sets dangerous precedent by circumventing the courts when conducting wiretaps of U.S. citizens. It’s difficult to pinpoint when President Bush and his inner circle of warriors crossed the threshold, deciding to curtail American citizens’ rights in the war against terrorism. He persists in rejecting Ben Franklin’s January 6, 1766 caution towards the British government who raised colonial ire with the Stamp Act. He wrote of “the mistaken opinion that the honour and dignity of government is better supported by persisting in a wrong measure once entered into than by rectifying an error as soon as it is discovered.” President Bush only grudgingly admits error. The president confronts a Bill of Rights’ tradition that proves hard for him to change. Most Americans believe national security is best protected when a few do not usurp ruling power. More fear arises when individual rights are infringed on. Americans get angry when they see democracy’s checks and balances circumvented for “greater national good.” We fear such undemocratic tactics as much as we fear terrorism.Our ancestors fled Europe, vowing never to replicate in their American Eden the rigid ruling hierarchies of the Old World. Colonial leaders rejected aristocratic brutal power. They rejected feudal tyrants’ rule by birth or blood rather than by individual merit. Shopkeepers and tradesmen, those not comfortable with royal power the few wield, immigrated to America to assert their individual rights. They cherished these rights of worship, voting and free expression in the press. These colonial patriots were willing to fight to the death for their rights. They feared equally King George III’s taxing terror and those robbing them of rights in order to protect Britain’s national security. At the height of McCarthy’s assault against individual liberties in the House Un-American Activities Committee, Americans heard another courageous voice. In 1953 Presbyterian John A. Mackay, president of Princeton Theological Seminary, drafted “A Letter to Presbyterians Concerning the Situation in Our Country and the World.” Mackay had been branded a “top collaborationist” for the Red Menace. Critics within and outside the Presbyterian Church tried to mute Mackay’s eloquent attack on McCarthy. Some wealthy business leaders told him to stick to salvation. Others inferred from Mackay’s previous experience as a missionary in South America that he sided with communism rather than capitalism to help the poor.Mackay warned how fearful expediency in dealing with the Red scare had sacrificed the “majesty of truth” on its altar. “While we take all wise precautions for defense,” wrote Mackay, “both within and without our borders, the present situation demands spiritual calm, historical perspective, religious faith and an adventurous spirit. Loyalty to great principles of truth and justice has made our nation great; such loyalty alone can keep it great and ensure its destiny.” Circumventing our national courts to counter terrorism is wrong when democracy’s guarantee of individual rights is denied.The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. As Jonathan Edwards Van Ens leads worship at the Dillon CO Community Church on Sunday, January 15, 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. and returns there Sunday at 6 p.m. portraying Edwards and Thomas Jefferson as they size up who Jesus is.Vail, Colorado

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