I try not to take political stands regarding specific candidates for office. As a minister, I find that to be a very fine line in our nation’s quest for separation of church and state. A value that has come under attack by my more conservative colleagues of the cloth. However, there is an issue that has arisen that I feel demands a response from all religious leaders regardless of theological persuasion. That issue is the tolerance of hate speech at political rallies.
One of McCain/Palin campaign strategies is questioning who Barack Obama really is. It’s a fair question. However, the responses from the audience have been threatening and hateful. Shouts in response have included, “Terrorist!”, “Traitor”, and “Kill Him” and “Off with His Head.” McCain and Palin do not address these comments, in fact they have encouraged them with their own speeches of tieing Obama with “domestic terrorist” William Ayers. The problem with allowing these comments to continue is that they eventually find a willing person to carry out the deed.
Georgian Congress representative John Lewis, stated, “As public figures with the power to influence and persuade, Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all,” the statement continues. “They are playing a very dangerous game that disregards the value of the political process and cheapens our entire democracy. We can do better. The American people deserve better.” Lewis compared the hateful rhetoric being engendered at McCain’s rallies akin to the hateful rhetoric of Alabama Governor George Wallace which has been indirectly connected to the bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963.
Perhaps the analogy Rep. Lewis drew is unfair or out of proportion but tell that to gays and lesbians and other sexual minorities who are attacked and harrassed because their churches preach that homosexuality is an abomination and should be killed. Matthew Shepard and more recently Larry King were killed because their killers heard repeatedly from the pulpit that gays did not deserve to live. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell blamed gays and lesbians and liberals (ACLU, Feminists, abortionists) for the 9/11 attacks. This sort of rhetoric stirs up hatred and violence against people because it is being made by people or made in the presence of people we are supposed to be able to trust. Senator McCain and Governor Palin are among those people we are supposed to be able to trust.
McCain’s response to Lewis and Obama was “Barack Obama’s assault on our supporters is insulting and unsurprising. These are the same people obama [sic] called ‘bitter’ and attacked for ‘clinging to guns’ and faith. He fails to understand that people are angry at corrupt practices in Washington and Wall Street and he fails to understand that America’s working families are not ‘clinging’ to anything other than the sincere hope that Washington will be reformed from top to bottom.”
I agree that people are angry. But screaming out “Kill Him!” is not an appropriate anger response to the issues. It is scapegoating. Justifying such hate speech by stating they are angry is also not appropriate. There are appropriate ways of expressing anger, shouting “Off with his head!” is not one of them. Allowing such inappropriate expressions will rile a crowd to a frenzied pitch that, if not stopped, will result in actions that all of us will regret.
McCain/Palin talk about reforming Washington politics. If they are serious about reform then they should be helping their supporters to channel their anger towards that reform. But it takes someone who has good anger management skills to know how to do this kind of organizing anger towards the positive.
I was fortunate to witness this at the Free Jena 6 rallies in Jena, LA. The crowd had been listening to a speaker who clearly was angry and was stirring the crowd towards doing something outrageous right at that moment. Rev. Jesse Jackson was called to the stage by the organizers and I was in awe at how he effectively and quickly calmed the crowd down. I was very grateful. Be angry yes, but channel that anger in appropriate ways. Hate speech is never justified. Blessings,