In the 1990s, a few years before I went to seminary, I lived in a small town in Oregon that passed an anti-gay initiative. I was editor and publisher of the local newspaper. My editorials opposing the referendum had little effect. The ballot initiative amended the city charter to say that the city could not give homosexuals any special rights. The town was in a frenzy before the vote. Sadly, as I write this column more than a month before our national election, the hysteria I experience today feels very much like what I experienced in Oregon.
Part of what made the anti-gay initiative in my town so weird was that its passage changed nothing. The city had no special rights to give. What was it supposed to do, give gays a discount on library fines? Respond more quickly to fire alarms? Forgive parking tickets? Yet the emotions were intense.
What feels so familiar today are the fear, the anger, and the demagoguery. In my small town, people were made to fear for their children. They were convinced there was some vast homosexual conspiracy.
Demagogues always feed on fear. We live in a nation where a sizable number of people are deeply afraid. They are afraid for their economic future, afraid of blacks, afraid of Muslims, afraid of Latino immigrants, afraid of Chinese taking jobs, afraid of their own government.
But fear almost always comes in disguise, so we don’t recognize it for what it is. Fear comes masked as hate, racism, homophobia, misogyny, religious intolerance, and even ignorance. It looks like an opinion, but it is a gut feeling.
When people are afraid, facts and reason are poor weapons. Have you ever tried to argue someone out of their racism, their climate change denial, their homophobia? I have. It never works. Telling an avowed racist that he should not feel that way is like telling a clinically depressed person to cheer up.
Why are so many of our neighbors afraid? We are a religious people who profess that we want to include everyone in the blessed community. We are part of the Universalist tradition, which affirms that love includes everyone. Everyone. Really. While you and I might be tempted to write off people we believe are evil, hard hearted, racist, stupid, and . . . (well, you can continue the list), that is not who we are. And ranting, as good as it feels in the moment—and no one likes a good rant more than I—doesn’t help.
While ranting does not work, the opposite does. The opposite of ranting is listening. I mean really listening—with an open heart and an open mind. One thing this election season has taught me is how many of my fellow Americans feel left out, hopeless, vulnerable. To support mass deportations, a police state, exclusion of Muslims, and the romanticized equivalent of a white American caliphate is not a political agenda—it is a cry of despair. I believe that, as a religious people who affirm the power of love, we need to hear the cries, however strident, of the fear that surrounds us.
We have always been a people who affirm justice. I am proud of that. But right now we need to go beyond advocacy and protest. I think we are called to bring empathy, understanding, and healing. And this involves forming relationships with people with whom we most disagree. And this is really, really hard.
We must help frame a vision of a future that includes everyone. We must not only decry evil, we must build a foundation for hope.