Are We Building a City on a Hill or Fortress of Fear?


I spent my final summer of Divinity School working in a locked safe at the Pentagon for the Under Secretary of Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (returning to school only a few weeks before my office was destroyed in the 9-11 attack). After graduation, I served as a youth pastor on weekends and evenings and spent my days in the Senate crafting policy to protect Americans from biological attacks and then worked for a Congressman providing Top Secret oversight of the Department of Homeland Security.

I am not naïve to the threats American face. But my national security background and Christian faith have taught me that we cannot allow ourselves to be defined by those threats or allow our actions to be governed by fear. And I worry that the Church's voice is increasingly absent from our public discourse around personal and national security.

Granted, Christians are participating in public debates--you might see someone slap on a clerical collar for a protest march or ensure their golden cross pendant is prominently displayed when they appear on Fox News--but its increasingly difficult to distinguish or identify an explicitly Christian voice in the various public discussions about threats.

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Rather than shaping and framing the deeply moral and personal questions around how our nation and individuals should respond to threats and cope with fear, Christians are increasingly allowing ourselves to be defined by political tribalism and adopting the secular rhetoric and worldview of one side or the other to explain what we believe and why.

We need to reestablish a distinctly Christian and moral voice on matters of American security. We need to do it first and foremost for the Christian witness. But we also need to do it for America. We've fallen such a long way from a time when America was defined as a "City on a Hill" to the present when it seems the best we can aspire to is a nation that builds higher and wider walls to cower behind.

There are legitimate reasons for Americans to cower. Terrorism is real. Globalization is disrupting the job market. Opioids are ravaging our communities. There are bad guys out to get us, at home and abroad. But it is precisely because the threats are real that a distinctly Christian voice is needed. It is so tempting when faced with evil--especially when we see it spreading in the world or reaching out to threaten those we hold most dear--to decide that the only option we have is to embrace the tools of our enemy.

It is therefore not surprising that during this time of political uncertainty and fear, the U.S. Senate will shortly to be wrestling with one of the darker moments in America's recent history when we gave in to fear and hopelessness and allowed terrorists to change who we are as a nation. In the next few weeks, the Senate will decide whether to confirm one of the architects of the post 9-11 "enhanced interrogation" program as the new leader of the CIA.

This is just one example of where our voice is needed but an important one. Gina Haspel is President Trump's current nominee, but her nomination has not become a partisan issue (and Christians can help ensure it doesn't become one). She was not heavily vetted before being put forward, and already there is growing bipartisan concern in the Senate with her qualification and some talk she might be withdrawn by the White House.

The main concern is that Gina Haspel ran a black-site secret CIA prison in Thailand where she oversaw the torture of suspected terrorists after 9-11, and then she destroyed the video evidence of those programs after Congress and the Bush Administration began to investigate what happened. The fact that Haspel destroyed evidence and played a central role in an effort to keep the American people from understanding what their government had done is deeply troubling.

But I believe Haspel's nomination raises deeper questions for us as American Christians. Christians, and Evangelicals in particular, were some of the most effective voices in calling America back from the moral precipice of torture following 9-11. Christianity Today's famous cover stating that "Torture is Always Wrong," accompanied by bold statements from the Southern Baptists and other major evangelical leaders reminded our political leaders that America is too great a nation to ever be defeated—or even really threatened by terrorists. The real threat wasn't from the terrorist, but that we would give into our fears and abandon the principles that make us who we are.

Our generals are nearly unanimous in the belief that torture is bad military policy that harms troop morale and does not create reliable and actionable intelligence. That is all true, but what Christian leaders reminded our country of after 9-11 is that the bigger reason we don't torture in America is that we are better than that.

It's no coincidence that the first thing God's messengers always say when communicating God's will to humans is, "Do not be afraid!" Jesus says it time and again as well, and throughout Scripture there is a clear an obvious pattern to when we are told to not fear: it's when God is about to do something amazing and ask us to take part.

We don't set aside fear because the threats are not real. We set it aside because we truly believe our God is greater, that our nation is better, that we are stronger than the things that threaten us.

That is precisely why we can't allow a woman who didn't believe America was strong enough to win without becoming like the enemy to be put in charge of our primary intelligence arm of government. Our Senators are hearing from our generals and veterans on why torture is bad policy. They also need to hear a distinctly Christian voice from their people again, acting as God's messengers reminding our political leaders to "fear not!" We are better than the terrorists, and America can produce better choices than Gina Haspel.

Eric Sapp leads the Eleison Group, a political consulting firm specializing in outreach to values voters. He has worked closely with Democrats, and more recently on using big data to understand and mobilize Americans around shared values.

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