It is estimated that in the last 800 years, half of the world’s Jews have died violently.On Oct. 27, eleven more Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue were added to that count by a man hurling anti-Semitic slurs and bullets. Though the history of anti-Semitism is immeasurably tragic, the slayings in Pittsburgh bring us face to face with another sobering fact: The religious and cultural diversity that is the heritage and strength of America has too often devolved into religious and cultural animosity.
Though affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I write on behalf of the Montana Interfaith Network which represents Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Native American, and other historic faith communities who “advocate for the dignity, sanctity, and equality of every human being.” This advocacy finds common cause, as well, with the aims of civil freedom and justice affirmed by the U.S. Constitution and its amendments. Yet starkly contrasted is an America dismayed and torn by church shootings, school shootings, racist nationalism, tribalism, and the fatiguing tensions of identity politics. This is regrettable to people of faith as well as to every citizen who is committed to “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Observe how certain political and religious currents in American society today bring to mind the “Know-Nothing” politics of the mid-1800s. The “Know-Nothing-Party” was pledged to defend American values and life-style from the potential of foreign domination on native-born Americans. American Protestants, in particular, feared the influence of immigrant European traditionalists and not least the increasing influx of Roman Catholics. This kind of hostile American nativism is not just a historical footnote, but lingers on in polarizing debates about immigration, white nationalism, identity politics, and racial and religious equality. Moreover, during the present election season Republicans and Democrats debate tooth and nail about border control and health care, yet neither party has brought forward detailed proposals and moderating attitudes that effectively move our governing process and our body politic beyond vitriolic stagnation and suspicion.
So the tragedy in Pittsburgh is not only a marker of anti-Semitism, but is another mark of the discord and debate that press the search for America’s soul. Our Founding Fathers recognized that diverse people with competing self-interests can either break or make a nation. They knew well the pitfalls of human avarice and tyranny, but anticipated (more than they realized) that constitutional divisions of power and democratic controls could preserve this nation in civil harmony despite and even because of differences of religion and inheritance.
By the same token, many faith traditions recognize that civil harmony is a religious imperative. In 1995, my Lutheran denomination made common cause with the Montana Association of Jewish Communities, not because we share the same religious doctrines about God and salvation, but because we share renewed respect for each other that does not bow to stereotypes and intolerance. Moreover, we stated that “We need not share a common creed to share common deeds that enhance human welfare and strengthen the moral fabric of society.”
Such is the kind of language and commitment that advances both faith and nation. Whatever our religion or biological and social inheritance; whether we are conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat, or Independent; whether we drive Fords, Chevys, or bicycles; we need not share a common creed to share common deeds of justice, respect, and maybe even love. This election season is a fitting time to deepen these foundations of our common life and prove-up the search for America’s soul.