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The Test We Now Face

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
Ephesians 6:12

The rancorous split between our two political extremes, between “red” and “blue,” is as deep and as loud as ever. To heal our divided nation the wiser among us are counseling us to understand those who voted differently, not to demonize those who supported the other candidate but to see them as full human beings.

True as far as it goes. There comes a time, however, when a moral line is crossed. A time when it no longer makes sense to say that one view is as sound as another, that one view is as valid as another, or that each is supported by its own set of facts. A time when basic moral and spiritual principles are so grossly violated that the welfare of the nation is at risk.

I do not say this simply because voters put a Republican in the White House. We have to expect that the Presidency will shift between the parties, especially as the agendas of each inevitably fail to fulfill expectations. This time is different.

Donald Trump won the Presidency on a campaign of racial and religious hatred and division begun long before he officially declared his candidacy. The lies that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the 9/11 attacks, were calculated to ignite the fears and hatred of voters who he figured would be so motivated by their passions that the issues themselves and his lack of preparation to handle them would hardly matter. He correctly surmised that so many people resented Obama because of his race that they would flock to the candidate who most clearly and loudly mirrored their own reaction against it. Of the more than a dozen Republican Party candidates, he was the one the voters chose. It is not a coincidence that after eight years with a black President we now have a new one who, beyond his determination to reverse everything the black President accomplished, also surrounds himself with people known for their prior support of white supremacy. Those who resent the suggestion that much of the opposition to President Obama was motivated by racism might need to consider that fact.

Trump’s outrageous and unfounded claim that he lost the popular vote because three million illegal aliens cast ballots against him clearly fits this pattern. It accomplishes two things at once: it claims a mandate that Trump did not earn, and it galvanizes support by targeting a hated population. Too many people are so relieved and happy to have a convenient outsider to blame for their misfortune that examining the mendacity of Trump’s claim holds no interest for them. The reason Trump has been compared, rightly or wrongly, to fascist autocrats is that he understands very well how to turn the human tendency to hate the “other” into political power.

The Trump Administration is now translating this racism into policy. We are going to build a wall that will not make us safer and will only become a burden to the American taxpayer. The hardened criminals we want to keep out will not be stopped by a wall. They will find ways to get over, under, around, and through it. And now authorities are preventing even legal residents with green cards from reentering the country. Trump’s effort to deport these people is a diabolical “thank you” for the valuable services many of them have performed for us. They have been in this country legitimately, but we are punishing them. We are punishing ourselves. We need their contributions.

Trump would have us believe that most of the people who cross our borders are drug dealers, criminals, and rapists. Nothing could be less true. Yes, there are criminals on both sides of the border, but those from the “wrong” side are no more likely to commit criminal acts than those on the inside. In fact, the opposite is true. People who reside here without papers tend to keep a low profile.

The “illegal alien” is being unfairly stereotyped and scapegoated. Most of those who cross the Mexican border are fleeing violence and gang warfare in their home countries that have made their lives unlivable. They do not have time to wait for years of paperwork to be completed. Whether or not one agrees with their methods, they should not be treated like human trash.

The undocumented people I work with as a state-certified nursing home resident advocate fit another pattern. Like the others, these are not greedy interlopers trying to push ahead of the line, as those who hate them like to believe. They enter the country legally, and something happens to them while they are here. Many get sick and may spend years in long-term care facilities. Others are victims of street crimes and become incapacitated. During their recovery period their visas expire. By the time they are well enough to leave the hospital or the nursing home they may have lost their support systems in their native countries, or may not be able to get the medical care there that they now need. Without documents very many of them become homeless, with hardly any access to community services and no options for housing. They have this limbo state to look forward to for the rest of their lives.

Some of these people are the finest and sweetest human beings I have ever met. And some of them, believe it or not, are Muslims. But listening to Trump and his associates one would think they were the Black Plague. The way Muslims are being targeted now should make us think of how Jews were targeted in Germany. The focused anger against them, and the threats of registration and expulsion are all too familiar.

We now know the real meaning of “America First.” It means “Non-immigrant, preferably white Americans only.” “America First” was actually the name of an isolationist, anti-Semitic organization - Charles Lindbergh was its spokesman - that wanted to appease Hitler by negotiating a peace with him. Now Trump wants to appease another dictator and war criminal, Vladimir Putin, who has intentionally targeted and murdered thousands of civilians and who may harbor expansionist ambitions not very unlike Hitler’s. This is what America has come to, a country that fancies itself a force for good in the world but that allows itself to be ruled and guided by xenophobic hatred.

Some of us even use the term “American Exceptionalism,” supposedly referring to our moral superiority but in fact reflecting as narcissistic a view of this country as Trump has of himself. Many of us have no notion of what this looks like to the rest of the world and could hardly care less even if we did. What “America First” will really mean in the years ahead is “America Alone.”

Many advance a moral justification for this extremism by saying Trump is “pro-life.” Is he? Is the Republican Party? It is time to unmask the hypocrisy behind this position once and for all.

If Republicans were really pro-life one would hear them crying out against the death penalty. Yet Republican states are the death penalty’s most ardent supporters and practitioners. Do people lose their right to life if they have committed a capital crime, even if they repent? What if they were wrongly convicted? We know that many have been. But “pro-lifers” never mention them.

“Pro-life” is really about forcing women to have babies that many cannot afford, then denying them the means to care for those children. The “Pro-Life” Party wants to knock out the Affordable Care Act and eviscerate Medicare and Medicaid to make room for tax cuts for the wealthy. This would deny health care to many of these children, who suddenly lose their value once they come out of the womb. Those families with babies born having serious defects will be financially and emotionally devastated. The “Pro-Life” Party wants to defund Planned Parenthood and in many cases deny insurance coverage not only for abortion but for birth control as well. One might be forgiven for thinking that “Pro-Life” is not really about life but about controlling how and when women have sex.

You also cannot call yourself “pro-life” and oppose reasonable safeguards against the misuse of firearms. The Second Amendment states “well regulated militia” but many “pro-life” gun advocates would prefer no regulations at all. The proliferation of guns throughout our society accounts for the hugely disproportionate incidence of gun injuries and deaths in this country. This poses a far greater threat to public safety than do immigrants and Muslims on American soil. Nevertheless it is promoted and defended as if it were a sacred duty. Those who call themselves “pro-life” seem to find no irony in this.

There is no moral justification for supporting a President and a party that embraces such values, and that now legitimizes the darkest side of the American psyche to the extent that people in increasing numbers believe that hate speech and hateful acts are acceptable. This is not to say the Democratic Party is without its flaws. It has many. But the Republican Party, which has given us Donald Trump and all he stands for (and I have not even mentioned his contempt for and abuse of women), has crossed a moral boundary. It has become something that no American of good conscience should accept.

This web site is devoted to the bond between Judaism and Christianity, to which I am deeply committed. But the fact that so many Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews have become associated with Trump and his values is a stain on both religions. No compensatory explanation or rationalization, not even the spurious “pro-life” argument, justifies enabling racial and religious hatred to rule us and divide us. Trump was not the only choice Republicans had. The fact that he is now President reveals a malignant spot on the American soul that if not faced and healed could lead not only to our isolation but to our possible destruction.

I do have questions and doubts about certain forms of Islam. I have similar doubts about the tenets of Evangelical Christianity and its lack of tolerance. Every religion contains within itself the seeds of intolerance if left unchecked. Maybe someday we will be ready for a critical and public discussion not just of the good religion does but also of the problems different forms of religion create. We are not ready for that yet. We probably won’t be for a very long time. Right now our task is to separate the abstract religious beliefs that people may or may not hold from the flesh-and-blood human beings who have real needs and aspirations and who the Bible tells us are our neighbors. “Love the stranger” is the core teaching of both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. It is the teaching that revolutionized the world. But America is turning against this teaching. We are allowing ourselves to be guided by “Fear and hate the stranger” instead. It does not matter whether the stranger looks like you or believes what you believe. That stranger is your neighbor. That is what the Bible says. It is the same Bible many promoters of dark values abuse to justify their misguided passion.

There is one hope. The hope within darkness is that it always gives light an opportunity. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). Up till now we have been a country of gridlock, in suspended animation between two political extremes. The apparent triumph of the dark side now provides a chance for a moral voice to rise and expose it. There is nothing that darkness hates more than light, because light shows the dark places for what they are. One political party asserting itself against another is not light. Democrat vs. Republican does not mean good vs. evil. But standing for compassion, for tolerance, for humanitarian values, for the poor and for the hated is light. Standing up against rule by divide-and-conquer, against the exploitation of racial, religious, and economic differences to consolidate power, and against the inflammation of our worst passions is light. Darkness always affords light its most powerful opportunities to appear and to prevail. Thousands of voices are raising themselves now against this darkness. This will not stop. It is our best hope.

Are Trump supporters “deplorables”? No, they are human beings. But the values that they either actively support or enable are deplorable. We must not turn against each other. “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh.” But there are “spiritual forces of evil” that right now constitute the greatest threat our country currently faces, far greater than ISIS and certainly greater than the imagined threat of too many immigrants and refugees. How we meet this threat will show the watching world who we really are.

January 2017