Dickens’ famous line “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness” certainly rings true this week. As citizens of a nation founded on the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, we find ourselves in the vortex of an election season in which a candidate for the highest office in our land exercises his right of “free speech” in a hateful, bigoted, racist manner that is offensive to millions of people in this country and abroad. Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States has left many of us completely breathless and virtually speechless, so completely horrific and unthinkable is the notion of a religious test for entry to this country.
Those of us who dedicate much of our lives to interfaith dialogue and cooperation join the throng of politicians, citizens, and religious leaders the world over in the chorus of condemnation of Trump’s words. As a Christian religious leader, I thought immediately of the words in the Christian New Testament, in the letter of James, wherein the writer warns of the dangers of the human tongue. “And the tongue is a fire….no one can tame the tongue- a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” (James 3:6, 8-10) The letter of James was likely written in the late first century of Common Era. Not much has changed in the ensuing twenty centuries it would seem.
In this season of hateful, xenophobic, racist rhetoric, Americans of all faiths and of no faith must proclaim and embrace the principles on which this nation was founded. Our first amendment liberties, including free speech and the freedom to exercise our religion are the jewels in the crown of our democracy. Mr. Trump, in the guise of “telling it like it is” is desecrating the very foundation of our American values, not to mention of the values of all of the world’s religions. Mr. Trump’s first amendment right to free speech means he can say the ridiculous things he’s been saying, but basic human decency, not to mention a modicum of good manners, would recommend a more nuanced approach. Mr. Trump makes me embarrassed to be an American. On the college campus where I serve are students from many countries of the world, and of many races, religions, and ethnicities, including Muslim students, faculty and staff, some born here, some immigrants, some guests in our country while they pursue their education. I am mortified that they have to be subjected to this hateful rhetoric and the climate of fear and mistrust that this discourse creates. Mr. Trump’s words are indecent, inhumane and unworthy of any public figure, most particularly one who fancies himself qualified to lead the nation. His words are also unworthy of anyone who purports to call themselves a Christian, which I believe, if asked, Mr. Trump would do, at least if he thought it expedient in his pursuit of public office.
Earlier this semester I travelled with eight of our students to the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which convened in Salt Lake City, Utah in October. For five days we were privileged to be among people from eighty countries and fifty different religious traditions all of whom gathered to share with one another the work they are doing all over the world to promote religious harmony, cooperation, and respect and to bring peace to a world wracked with violence and war. It is a shame that this gathering did not garner the same degree of media attention that the actions of ISIS or the words of demagogues like Mr. Trump always manage to attract. It is time that the story of interfaith understanding and cooperation, a story unfolding in the United States and in countries all over the globe, be proclaimed with as much intensity as is the unending narrative of conflict, hate and fear. Peaceful, respectful, life giving interfaith encounter and cooperation is happening all over the world, in churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, gurudwaras, in small villages and big cities, on college campuses and in countless local venues. A new future is being birthed in those places and that is the story the media should be telling.
Mr. Trump does not represent the breath of fresh air, nor the “change” that he and his supporters claim people want and need in our national life. Quite the opposite. His is the old, tired, negative, destructive narrative of fear, hate, bigotry and “othering” that has generated centuries of wars and conflicts. The real hope for the future of humanity lies with the young people I am privileged to work with and serve, and the mentors who walk with them, those who are dedicating themselves to creating a future in which racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia and all other kinds of phobias and “isms” become a thing of the past.
At the University of Rochester Interfaith Chapel, we affirm and celebrate the religious diversity of our student body, our nation and of the world. We are a cooperation circle within the United Religions Initiative, dedicated to promoting enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to ending religiously motivated violence and to creating cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings. And in these dark days of December 2015 we stand in solidarity with our Muslim students, faculty and staff, and the Muslim community here in Rochester who are our valued and respected neighbors, as they weather the storm of hate and bigotry perpetrated by the likes of Mr. Trump. We will continue our mission to foster interfaith understanding and cooperation and to create a world where no person of any religious or spiritual tradition need live in fear.