When political rhetoric brings out the worst in us

Gordon Stewart
Gordon C. Stewart is a Presbyterian minister.
Submitted photo

Our nation is being poisoned by inflammatory rhetoric from both sides of the political aisle. How else does one explain the sending of a used condom to a Minnesota congresswoman, or the phone message left on Rep. Keith Ellison's answering machine: "Timothy McVeigh said dead government workers are good government workers. Goodbye, Sambo"?

And that's just here in Minnesota.

The success of a democratic republic depends upon the civility of its citizens and respect for the offices of elected officials, regardless of whether one agrees with the officials themselves. Unless we clean up the language of our civil discourse, we are inviting unimaginable tragedy.

According to a Harris Interactive Poll taken this month, "more than 20 percent believe [President Obama] was not born in the United States, that he is 'the domestic enemy the U.S. Constitution speaks of,' that he is racist and anti-American, and that he 'wants to use an economic collapse or terrorist attack as an excuse to take dictatorial powers.' Fully 20 percent think he is 'doing many of the things that Hitler did,' while 14 percent believe 'he may be the anti-Christ' and 13 percent think 'he wants the terrorists to win.' " Though I distrust the percentages of any poll, whatever the real percentages of such views, this cocktail is lethal.

But it is not new. The taste is all too familiar. I grew up in another time when the civil discourse had been poisoned.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy was dumping poison -- instigating a national witch hunt for communists and communist sympathizers in government, the entertainment industry and labor unions. In the spring of 1954, McCarthy's crusade of insinuation, innuendo and guilt by association was brought to an end by journalist Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welsh, attorney for the U.S. Army.

Sharpening his teeth to devour his adversary by character assassination, McCarthy reminded Welch that one of Welch's colleagues had belonged to an organization suspected of communist sympathies. Welch replied with words we all need to hear again: "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

Welch's words took our breath away back then. And they still do. A sense of decency is the only thing that will strengthen us to escape the politics of assassination and allow us to seek solutions in a difficult time. In Murrow's words, "We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from the fearful."

Painting the president of the United States or members of Congress with McCarthy's sloppy brush as domestic enemies -- let alone as the Antichrist -- gives deranged minds a license to send used condoms or hateful voicemails. Or even to plot an assassination.

As a pastor I rue the use of Christian scripture to stoke the fires of fear and hate. The Christian life takes evil seriously, but loud spirituality is an oxymoron. All the great religions hold some version of the essential tenet expressed in the first letter of John, which, incidentally is the only place in all of Christian Scripture that the idea of the Antichrist appears. "He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still."

Where are the likes of Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welsh now? We need them again.

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Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, a regular guest commentator on "All Things Considered," and moderator of the "Shepherd of the Hill Dialogues: examining critical public issues locally and globally."

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