Bigotry is an ugly word
by Rabbi Jack Moline
Bigotry is an ugly word, beyond prejudice and stereotype. So I want to make it clear that I have chosen it purposely, knowing that some people who read this message will be insulted. To be clear again: the insult is intentional.
Religious belief has emerged as a central issue in the campaign for president, though it has been just below the surface for many years in local, state and national contests. As the chair of The Interfaith Alliance and as a congregational rabbi in Virginia, I have a particular interest in this issue. It is right and proper to understand what role deeply-held convictions will play in the decision-making of a candidate for public office. A candidate who makes a point of his or her religious life should be expected to respond to questions about the intersection of public policy and the tenets of a tradition. Virginia’s current governor, a devout Catholic, addressed just such questions surrounding the state’s death penalty.
Likewise, integrity and credibility ought to be central to public service. While it is not always the case, in the race for president, there is ample evidence in each candidate’s record that the men and woman running for the highest office in the land have little to hide. Moreover, what little there may be to hide is almost certain to be ferreted out by responsible journalists and investigators. Recall the failed candidacy of Senator Gary Hart and the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew.
A phenomenon that violates both sensibilities while pretending to promote each one has emerged in a campaign that includes a group of candidates whose backgrounds are as diverse as America. Governor Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, Governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon, and Senator Barack Obama, who is part African and whose father and step-father were Muslim, have been subjected to wild speculations about the extreme nature of their true beliefs and accused publicly of concealing their genuine loyalties. Senator John McCain and Senator Hillary Clinton have been challenged on their “religious credentials.” The kernel of accuracy in these public broadsides does not excuse the exaggerations, fabrications and manipulations of the truth within them. They constitute hate crimes and would be treated as such if leveled against you and me in our private lives.
Of greatest concern to The Interfaith Alliance is the fertile soil these attacks have found around the country. From my own vantage point within the Jewish community, I have seen my rabbinic colleagues asking about documents circulated by groups claiming to be disinterested politically that call into question the RELIGIOUS beliefs and identities of the candidates, with the overt purpose of frightening Jewish voters. The candidates, Republican and Democratic alike, have been accused of supporting proselytization from the White House, polygamy, Wahabi-sponsored terrorism, and the eventual disenfranchisement of Jews from the benefits of United States citizenship.
Generally written in breathless style and peppered with quotations from people of renown taken out of context, these attacks are as objectionable to people of conscience as the notorious “Sturmer” of pre-WWII Germany, which caricatured the Jews and “proved” their untrustworthiness and corrosive influence on society.
If you write such material, you are a criminal. If you distribute such material, you are an accomplice. And if you believe such obvious tripe, you are a bigot.
Support the candidate of your choice. Vote as if your life depended on it. Donate time, money and advocacy to the causes you endorse. But the life of the body politic is a dirty enough business as it is. Do not sully it further with sin of bearing false witness.
And now that I have insulted some of you, allow me to insult the rest of you: broadsides like these are being distributed because of the presumption that they will have resonance. Too many in this country have been thoroughly effective at communicating our distrust of Mormons, or Islam or atheists or evangelical Christians, the list goes on. The result is that political operatives sense fertile ground for exploiting our prejudices to their advantage. I ask that if you see similar materials distributed in your communities, let The Interfaith Alliance know so that we are prepared to respond when necessary.
We have some deep self-reflection to undertake. And we have some changes in behavior to consider. As I think about the history of the Jewish community, I recall that we felt secure only when reassured by the first president of the United States that America offers “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Every faith community needs that reassurance. But the standard must be private as well as public.
Rabbi Jack Moline
Board Chair, The Interfaith Alliance
copyright 2008 The Interfaith Alliance, All Rights Reserved