As a religious leader in Central Florida, I have been disappointed over the past several days in what some of the opinion pieces in the Orlando Sentinel, the commentators in the media and President Trump have all said about the events in Charlottesville, Va. The legitimacy of white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis has been justified as a matter of freedom of speech and assembly, the right to preserve Confederate history, and other rights as American citizens.
“We don’t like what they stand for, but they still have rights like every American” is the mantra we have heard. This is certainly not a mantra from the perspective of faith traditions. The problem is that these individuals are confusing the granting of rights with the granting of legitimacy. Having rights does not give an individual equal standing in a society. Anyone who has faced racism, sexism, homophobia or anti-Semitism knows this to be true.
In politics and public discourse, in the media, on the dais or pulpit, or in any kind of conversation or interaction, faith teaches that it is not only what we have (the rights, the status or title) that gives us standing, but more important, it is what we do, how we act, what kind of person we are, and how we contribute to our society that gives us legitimacy.
When we focus exclusively on the rights of white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis, we make who they are and what they do mistakenly inconsequential. You can dress up these groups in all the rights they have, but underneath they are still purveyors of extremism and hate. There are certain ideologies and actions that put groups outside the pale of deserving to be listened to, brought in or accepted as a part of a society. These hate groups should not be given standing anywhere in our country and should never be considered as a normal part of the fabric of our country. The tragedy of history and of my religious history bears out well what happens when evil is granted moral equivalency with good.
This I fear is one of many attempts that we have seen as of late to normalize things that once seemed out of line with the norms of our country. We once had an accepted definition of what truth is. We had an agreed-upon idea about how civil discourse should be conducted. We had consensus about how leaders should conduct themselves and about what we expected of their moral character. We seem to be going through a phase of blurred normalization. We cannot allow these hate groups to be normalized. That would be a tragedy of our own making.
So I join with others who believe as I do that our country’s greatness will be measured by how it is able to refocus on a wide and agreed-upon set of norms that meet a moral standard and that will allow us to not only survive, but flourish as Americans.
Steven W. Engel is senior rabbi of the Congregation of Reform Judaism in Orlando and one of The Three Wise Guys on the WMFE (90.7 FM) program “Friends Talking Faith.”