Editorial: We must gear up to confront bigotry

This article appears in the Transition to Trump feature series. View the full series.

It will take a long time and a great deal of will and public effort to clear the debris and layers of residue that have landed on the body politic from the most recent presidential campaign. There has been no time in recent history when the country was in such desperate need of true religion -- what the deepest streams of our faith traditions have to offer us all in mitigating the worst of the damage.

We are a community, no matter our presidential preference, looking around at a landscape altered in the wake of a raging storm. The primary victim in all of this was civility; that essential but delicate barrier island has been battered beneath waves of harsh and unforgiving rhetoric fueled by the frustration and anger of people who felt spurned and ignored.

When civility disappeared, there was no holding back the floodtide of hate speech and assaults on those who could not control or alter what made them easy targets: the color of their skin, their accents, the faith they profess.

Hatred of the other, unleashed in the heat of political battle and essentially given permission to come out of hiding, is the most toxic residue of the campaign. The hows and whys of our current situation will no doubt be studied and examined at length in every forum imaginable. And that examination is essential to ultimate understanding.

But the far more pressing case at hand requires society to mobilize every effort possible to turn down the heat and to make hate speech and hate activities the unthinkable response. Congregations, parishes, mosques, temples and synagogues have to take extraordinary steps, and quickly, to demonstrate that the language of discrimination, the speech and activities that objectify and paint the other as undesirable or dangerous or unwanted, is not the practice of the vast majority of Americans.

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If there is an upside to what is going on, it is that people have been awakened to the need for solidarity and for acting in a way that demonstrates the better nature of most Americans.

The weekend after Election Day, in a predominantly Hispanic section of Silver Spring, Md., a sign noting the time of a Spanish-language service at an Episcopal church was slashed, and the legend, "Trump Nation, Whites Only," was painted on the back of it and on a wall of the church. According to The Washington Post, the incident was one of several in which churches have been vandalized by racist graffiti.

The response at Church of Our Savior was immediate, widespread and ecumenical. The Rev. Robert Harvey, rector of the diverse congregation, said messages of support poured in from across the country, and he told the Post that he had done interviews with outlets in Japan, the Czech Republic, Spain and Brazil.

While words and gestures of solidarity and compassion are essential, so is vigilance. For the same weekend that parishioners and others sang "We Shall Overcome" outside Our Savior, more than 200 people, most of them young men, gathered a few miles away inside the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington to listen to white supremacy propaganda.

Toward the end of a long day of speeches that nodded at tolerance toward non-whites, the crowd heard from Richard Spencer, described in a New York Times story about the event as the leading ideologue of the alt-right movement. He dropped any pretensions of inclusivity and "railed against Jews and, with a smile, quoted Nazi propaganda in the original German."

He said America belonged to white people, whom he called "children of the sun" who, in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, were "awakening to their own identity."

The story is one of the more chilling, disturbing depictions of what people now feel free to express as the transition to a Trump presidency gets underway. The language is a bare-knuckles assault on the country's founding premise of human equality -- imperfectly lived, for certain, but always the measure of our progress as a people.

Spencer cleared up any ambivalence one might have about whether the alt-right -- his phrase and his creation -- is racist at its core. "America was, until this last generation, a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity," he said in his speech. "It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us."

At the conclusion of his speech, "several audience members had their arms outstretched in a Nazi salute," the Times reported. Someone at the front of the room, the article said, "shouted 'Heil the people! Heil victory.' " And the room responded with the same phrases.

We must be careful, in these days after the strangest election in modern U.S. history, not to get caught up in endless loops of useless anger and unproductive arguments. We do need -- those on either side of the divide -- to actually listen to one another and to understand why those we disagree with voted as they did. We should seek to really understand, not for the sake of debate, but for the sake of understanding.

At the same time, we cannot dispense with the responsibility to be vigilant. Both our faith and our citizenship call us to protect the vulnerable and the marginalized, those whom others would want to separate out by marking them as different, as other, as somehow inferior. We cannot allow that to happen.

Amid the debris and damage, we remain uncertain. This is a time when balance is required to neither overreact nor be naive about what is being unleashed.

We strongly recommend that believers seek others who are committed to peacemaking in the most practical terms. What are the humane and nonviolent strategies for dealing with white supremacists and those who seek to divide families with mass deportations or with registries of people based on ethnicity and religious beliefs?

Religious congregations should be gearing up to meet these challenges, should they materialize, and certainly among Catholic parishes, where diversity and numbers of immigrants are on the rise.

And it would certainly be comforting to hear from our religious leaders. The bishops have recently made some compelling statements about immigrants and the church's solidarity with immigrants. However, we need more from those with the stature to inform the new administration of the limits of our tolerance for intolerance and discriminatory acts.

If religious freedom is to ever be about more than sexual issues, our bishops need to speak forcefully their concern for our Muslim brothers and sisters and the need to protect them from discrimination and worse.

Reclaiming civility could be a long and difficult undertaking. It involves kindness and acting toward others as we wish to be treated, respecting differences and going the extra mile to understand those with whom we disagree.

But it also means, and perhaps more important to the issue, steeling ourselves against the kind of raw bigotry and discriminatory rhetoric spewed at the alt-right gathering in Washington. It means placing ourselves in the space between hate and the targets of hate.

This story appeared in the Dec 2-15, 2016 print issue under the headline: Editorial: We must gear up to confront bigotry .

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