This article by Churchill Strategies founder & principal, Jeff Coleman, originally appeared as a PennLive OpEd on December 1, 2015.
Fear itself was on the menu for many families this past Thanksgiving week. Not the fear of becoming homeless overnight, or the threat of impending personal tragedy, but something far more sinister and less visible.
The holiday that Lincoln was first to proclaim as a national moment for “Thanksgiving and praise” during the hottest years of the Civil War, fell far short this year of delivering on its historic purpose as the unifying day for gratefulness.
The large servings of debilitating fears on dinner tables found us worrying about everything from a supposed invasion of Syrian immigrants to the targeting of police to the question of whether Donald Trump’s candidacy was in fact destroying or saving the country.
And that was just the first course.
You heard it too, didn’t you? Fear flowed like thick gravy, and there was no Abraham Lincoln to build a dam of gratitude to stop it.
Every family seemed consumed by fears, and most national leaders seemed to agree with the premise. Fear is good politics.
Conservative talk radio, cable and mega blogs did their part.
Even many pastors and so-called faith leaders, the ones we’ve traditionally sought out for some eternal, enduring truths in times of crisis—namely the idea of trusting in God—used pulpits to echo, not ameliorate our newest phobias. Fear seemed to snuff out faith for huge segments of professing believers.
Progressives found their own fretful holiday tune, aided by the force of celebrities, their own cooperative news outlets and a rising tide of anti-religious secularism.
In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving reunions, tensions grew as we found out just how out of sync we are with the collection of fears expressed by our friends and loved ones.
Last month, Chapman University diagnosed this trend with its annual survey of American fears. 1,500 adult respondents were asked some 88 questions about what kept them awake at night.
Political corruption topped the list with 58 percent. Corporate snooping took third at 44.6 percent, with government prying coming close at fifth place.
The results in the ninth and tenth spots were both rooted in concerns about personal security: 37 percent of those questioned thought they may run out of money.
America isn’t unified this year, but we haven’t been for some time.
But more than being divided by belief, we’re huddled in our own nervous circles of self-preserving, inward-thinking doubts. This is far from America’s finest hour.
National leaders, those with millions of YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat followers have achieved something unprecedented in American history.
With the ability to pinpoint the fears to their audience, they deploy public platforms to micro target fear and cynicism into nearly every crack in national consciousness.
With new threats to the stability of our material success, foreign or domestic, we invite the captains of fear to position themselves as the only antidote – the only plausible solution to our multiplied problems.
Just by hitting the “Like” button, we’ve invited spokesmen to confirm our biggest fears – every day.
Instead of rallying Americans to fight fear with gratitude, as great leaders throughout our national story have done, they appeal to our basest instincts, not Lincoln’s “better angles of our nature.”
The president of 1863 did something inconceivable during his moment of crisis. Instead of riding the wave of even well founded fears, he asked Americans to count their blessings.
Here’s how President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation read in part:
“In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.”
This coming year, with the direction of national leadership on the ballot, we can demand something more of the people we’re auditioning to lead our state and national conversation.
Perhaps a good starting point is to re-read the treasure of proclamations, speeches and public prayers of those who’ve led us through dark, uncertain moments in generations past.
Their language is unequivocal, and their faith, seemingly unshakable.
From the certainty in the language of the Pilgrim generation, who knew the reality of true hardship, to those calmed our fears during wars and improbable excursions into space, their words remind us to be faithful in this generation requires us to face our challenges without fear.
Before we follow, let’s find some leaders.