NEW ORLEANS — It’s gotten ugly out there in the public
square — on television, at public meetings, on the Internet.
Whether it’s health care reform specifically, or politics
generally, people seem to demonize each other, shout each other down and
gleefully circulate vicious e-mail messages distorting the other side.
So much so that Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy here
recently found common ground about one, clear thing. They’ve decided to give their
congregations a message: Get ahold of yourself!
“The whole atmosphere has been getting just nasty,” said
Rabbi Robert Loewy of Congregation Gates of Prayer. “We’re not going to change the
world, but we’ve decided we need to raise people’s awareness — that this is
just not right. It’s wrong.”
A standing group of about two dozen New Orleans-area clergy
recently drafted and began circulating a “Faith Statement on Public Discourse.”
It urges members of their congregations and the public to show basic respect to
those with whom they disagree.
Some of the two dozen or so priests, ministers, rabbis and
an imam have agreed to raise the admonition from their pulpits — and some, like
Loewy, already have.
At his congregation’s Yom Kippur service earlier this fall,
he pronounced himself “disgusted” with the “obnoxiously partisan” tone of the
national debate around health care reform.
Some clergy have handed it over to their church
communication networks, and the civility statement has begun circulating among regional
Episcopal and United Church of Christ clergy. Copies are going to local, state
and federal politicians urging them, too, to keep a civil tongue.
The statement is founded on the shared Christian, Jewish and
Islamic premise that “since we regard all human beings as God’s children … we
regard an offense against our neighbor as an offense to God.”
“Violence begets violence,” the statement says, “in speech
and in action.”
It calls on people to display respect for those with whom
they disagree; to debate issues, not demonize opponents; to stop misrepresenting
opponents’ views; and to stop circulating e-mail messages that “demonize or
humiliate persons or groups.”
The initiative comes from an interfaith group that was born
last year in response to hateful intolerance, when somebody burned “KKK” into the
lawn of a black couple in a predominantly white neighborhood in suburban
A little more than a year later, the group has taken stock
of the general level of anger in the public arena.
The new effort was triggered when a relatively new member,
Ginger Taylor, interim pastor of Good Shepherd United Church of Christ, came to
a clergy meeting, having attended a raucous town hall meeting on health care
reform sponsored by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
“To say they were a bunch of wing nuts would be absolutely inaccurate.
They’re the people who go to church, who mow each others’ lawns when they’re
sick, who bring a pot of soup over,” Taylor said.
But that evening, she said, they were shouting at each other
and so distorting each others’ ideas the event amounted to “bumper sticker discourse.”
Soon after, Omar Suleiman, the imam of a Metairie mosque,
Masjid Abu Bakr al Siddiq, told fellow clergy that local Muslims changed venues
for a public celebration when they learned that a gun show also was booked into
the facility at the same time.
Coming on the heels of the massacre at Fort Hood — allegedly
at the hands of a Muslim gunman, Maj. Nidal Hasan — Suleiman said his community
has become wary of public reaction, especially the women.
“We’re all on edge. We know when something like this
happens, there’s usually some kind of backlash,” Suleiman said.
In that kind of climate, spectators’ passiveness can be seen
as implicit consent, so some clergy said the civility resolution was all the
“Silence allows more and more incivility to develop. It
allows people to develop a culture of incivility, and as clergy people we should
make some kind of statement,” said Episcopal Deacon Priscilla Maumus, who
drafted the one-page document.
“What we’re hoping is it’ll get conversations started. “Not
about what your opinion is, or what mine is, but that we both have an opinion, and
if we disagree we’ll be civil. Not because we’re polite, but because as people
of faith, we’re called on to do that.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New