Rev. Dr. Stephen Smith serves as the rector of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Dublin, Ohio.
The elections are over. The endless campaign commercials have ceased, even if the yard signs still overwhelm the right of ways.
More persistent than the omnipresent yard signs is the residue of the politics of fear. This election cycle, candidates manipulated fears of Ebola, unrest in the Middle East, and the specter of the “other party” being in power, all as something to be feared.
A more grassroots fear emerged in southern Ohio as a local candidate for public office received several threats because of her Muslim faith. Cathina Hourani, a candidate from Liberty Township/Butler County, Ohio, who ran for the state’s 52nd State House District, received multiple threatening phone calls after the Journal News published a story on her candidacy. Hostile comments also appeared on the Journal’s website in response to the article, including the shocking “Don’t elect a Muslim SOB, you should start shooting them.”
Is it any wonder that such fear-generated attacks on a Muslim candidate emerged at a grassroots level when the climate of our national and regional political debates is little more than public fear-mongering by candidates of all parties?
Such threats have no place in the political dialogue of this country. Our Constitution guarantees the right to free expression of religion. It protects the worshiper from feeling compelled to alter his or her beliefs either because of the dominance of the state, the culture at large, or because of violent threats. Moreover, the Constitution prohibits a religious test for holding public office; our politicians best serve us by displaying their public policy prowess, not their religious background.
This country has welcomed political candidates whose religious views have not necessarily coincided with the majority, including John F. Kennedy as a Roman Catholic, and more recently Mitt Romney, a Mormon. Yet, in a campaign ad four years ago, then-candidate for State Treasurer Josh Mandel accused incumbent Kevin Boyce of being too close to the Muslim community, as if that were a reason to vote against him. And now, we see a candidate receive death threats for her faith. This flies in the face of our historic respect for religious freedom.
As an Episcopal priest, I personally condemn these threats – and I would hope it does not seem strange for a Christian leader to come to the defense of a Muslim running for political office. In my faith, we are required on a regular basis to recite our Baptismal Covenant, a simple set of statements of faith and promises which remind us what we believe and what, as Christian people, we will do to carry out those beliefs. One of those promises is to “respect the dignity of every human being.” I am called to treat all – both those I share things in common and those who are different from me — with respect.
Because I commit to respecting the dignity of every human being, I am even called to respect my enemies and those who wish me harm. In fact, I am even called to treat the person who made the threatening phone calls with respect, even though this person’s actions not only show a lack of respect for Hourani, but an incredible lack of self-respect as well. Given my faith’s fundamental charge to respect every human being, it is a very short step from there to respecting the dignity of those who, like myself, embrace and hold fast to a faith in God, even if that faith is different from my own. So, of course I support the right of a person to run for public office, even if he or she ascribes to a faith different from my own.
As a priest for more than 25 years, I have said the Baptismal Covenant more times than I can count. It has affected the way I live my life; now, I often find myself consciously building relationships with people of other faiths. The Baptismal Covenant has led me to form an interfaith organization — SAIL, the Safe Alliance of Interfaith Leaders — in northwest Columbus that currently includes Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus, and we hope others will join as well. In an era when religious-based threats are far too common, we stand together to discourage such threats and promote solidarity and safety.We respect one another, listen to each other, learn from one another and most recently, we have learned to pray with one another. We all know that these relationships have enriched our lives – and have done nothing to compromise each of our own faiths. In fact, we find ourselves driven deeper into our faith traditions because of what we learn and experience from each other.
Our political process could benefit from such learning and growth. It is a powerful product of America’s promise of religious freedom. It is also something we can gain by encouraging a diversity of people to participate in our political process. But it is exactly this realization of the American dream that is jeopardized by a politics of fear leading to candidates like Ms. Hourani being threatened and harassed. Such prejudice must end. There is no room for it in our democracy.