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Fire, Brimstone, and the Republican Party November 4, 2008

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Politics, Religion.
Tags: , , ,

Fire and Brimstone from John McCain

At the time of this writing, most voters in the United States who are going to cast a ballot have probably made up their minds who they’re going to vote for in the Presidential race. In my case, my work was going to take me out of town for Election Day (today), so I cast an absentee ballot last week. (No, I’m not going to reveal who I voted for. You’re free to make assumptions and guesses, but one of my favorite aspects of the voting process is its anonymity and privacy.)

As the title suggests, this post concerns the campaign of Arizona Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate for President. Being the representative of the Republican Party, the expectation in the US is that he will be supported by social and theological conservatives, generally known here as “the Right.”

In recent days, I’ve started to notice that Senator McCain’s campaign is starting to take on some of the attributes of lesser-known elements of those on the theological Right, both in tone and substance. As a registered Republican, I’m not particularly happy or comfortable with this development.

Negative Campaigning

Like a lot of people in the US, I have a distinct distaste for negative campaigning. At the same time, I’ve grown so accustomed to it, it doesn’t surprise me anymore, and tends to just become background noise when I hear it. It frustrates and turns me off, regardless of who’s doing it–even “my” candidate.

Unfortunately, those of us in the tech industry are all-too-familiar with negative campaigns. Here, we tend to summarize it by it’s most common traits: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (commonly called “FUD”). Although generally associated with Microsoft in some of its early “campaigns” against rivals, it’s commonplace for many technology companies. The basic idea behind a good FUD campaign goes like this:

First and foremost, you should fear a solution from my competitor. Although they may be good people, their solution to the problem at hand has many negative outcomes that you should associate with them, even if those associations are almost impossible to prove. For my FUD approach to gain any traction, I have to cause you to accept that there are valid reasons for you to fear the opposition.

Second, you should feel a certain level of uncertainty about my competitor. Perhaps they are not as well-established as I am, or they have demonstrated some recent blunders in strategy. Uncertainty, by itself, would probably not sway you, but when I create a bit of this to go along with your fears, I’m creating an overall uneasiness that can be very effective.

Lastly, with the mood of suspicion that you’re developing, I can cast doubt over many things that without the fear and uncertainty, you’d have no reason to doubt. For example, I can look at recent announcements from the competition, and tell you “Knowing what you know now (from my recent revelations that created fear and uncertainty), can you believe that they are actually going to deliver on what they’ve promised?”

With FUD, I have set the stage for you to look for a better solution, almost entirely by discrediting what has already been presented. The best part of this is, I may be able to do this, even if I don’t have something better to offer, or have any offering at all.

FUD campaigns, ultimately, take many of the traditional debating techniques and approaches (Poisoning the Well, the Slippery Slope, the False Dilemma, and so on), and combining them in an effective whole. Why would I do this? I do so, because of the notion of elevating myself, by way of demoting others.

“Religious” Wars in Tech

In technology, there’s no shortage of case studies for FUD both ways. In recent years, the Mac vs PC/Windows dialog has degraded into a comedy of one-upmanship. For years, people assumed that Microsoft was the “king of FUD.” However, anyone who’s seen any of Apple’s Mac/PC ads would have to agree that the commercials concerning Vista have been largely (if not entirely) a FUD campaign.

Other examples would include the language wars of C++ vs Visual Basic, Nokia N95 vs iPhone, and the always-entertaining iPod vs anythingbutipod.com. In each case, you can frequently find a FUD campaign, and it generally seems to come from the side that doesn’t have the leading position (if not in marketshare, in public perception).

Old-Time Religion and “Angry Christians”

Having grown up in church, I have a fair amount of familiarity with different preaching styles. One style that has been “out of vogue” for some time now is the “hellfire and damnation” sermon. This sermon doesn’t attempt to persuade you to a point of faith by suggesting that God’s ultimate plan for your life is an “everlasting life” that begins today. No, this sermon persuades you that the eternal pain of Hell is so great and so horrible, that any reasonable person would choose Heaven (and any path that might lead to Heaven) instead.

On the plus side, a hellfire and damnation sermon doesn’t display the (apparently) naive nature of the “pie in the sky, by and by” Christian who seems to be the scorn of non-theists everywhere, who smiles about “God’s perfect plan,” apparently unaware of what may be going on around them. In contrast, the hellfire and damnation sermon seems to suggest that not only are you sinful trash, but you’re so trashy that even Satan himself might be disgusted with you, and might have something particularly nasty in store for you.

Having heard one such sermon, an Atheist friend of mine asked, “Why do the saved seem to take joy in hearing about the damnation of the lost?” It’s a valid question, and one that makes me glad that the hellfire and damnation style has gone by the wayside. (I’m not debating or critiquing the validity of any theology that may be presented in such a sermon. I’m criticizing the style of presenting the holy argument solely in the style of a FUD campaign.) It should come as no surprise that avoiding the hellfire and damnation style causes many pastors to be criticized for “softball” sermons.

Questions for McCain

All of this leads me to have some questions for the campaign of Senator McCain:

  • Does a negative campaign signal that you have nothing positive to say? When I listen to Senator Obama’s campaign, I hear him criticizing your plans, your record, and your approach, but when I hear you, I see and hear mostly criticism of the man.
  • Does the demonstrated inflexibility and adamant conviction of your supporters encourage discussion and change,  or does it only promote alienation, polarization, and stratification of the electorate?

Questions for Christians, Conservatives, and Liberals

Finally, all of this has me looking inward as well, and asking questions of a wider group:

  • Are Christians being fair to expect non-Christians to consider an opposing view, when they are generally unwilling to do so? I’ve asked this question a few times recently, and the response I’ve found is… underwhelming, to say the least.
  • Is either side (Conservative or Liberal) being fair to expect those from the other side to consider an opposing view when they are generally unwilling to do so?

Later today, we should have an idea of how effective the Republican Party’s FUD campaign has been in convincing voters in the US to support “anythingbutobama.” It remains to be seen whether, as a nation, we’re destined to continue shouting at each other, and growing more and more polarized in our views, even as we complain about the inflexibility and stubborness of the other side.


1. Tim Heard - March 3, 2009

Hey Tim. Just clicked over here from your LinkedIn page. We have traded a few messages in the past, seem to have some common friends, but have never met in person.

Just wanted to say that I really appreciated the thoughtfulness behind this post. I only wish there were more Christians in general, and evangelicals specifically who were so thoughtful. I think there are a growing number of them in the 25 to 50 age range, but not nearly as many as one would hope for.

Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I hope that one day I have the good fortune of meeting you in person.


2. Joseph G. Mitzen - April 20, 2010

“It remains to be seen whether, as a nation, we’re destined to continue shouting at each other, and growing more and more polarized in our views, even as we complain about the inflexibility and stubborness of the other side.”

Would you say now that the answer is that things have gotten more polarized and intolerant than you could have imagined when you first wrote this?

3. Tim - April 20, 2010

Joseph, things have grown worse than I ever imagined. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. – Tim

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