Dr. S. Amjad Hussain.
Recently, a few partisan pundits were debating the lack of civility in American public discourse. The pivotal point was how a restaurant owner in Virginia asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family to leave the restaurant.
I think the restaurant owner crossed the line on civility. A public space has no right to refuse service to anyone, regardless of religious or political beliefs, just as a baker has no right to refuse a gay couple that wants to order a wedding cake. In both cases, prejudice masquerading as religious beliefs or political convictions spilled over into the public arena.
It is no different than when some businesses used to refuse entry to Jews, blacks, and dogs. We have, people say, moved away from those xenophobic times.
Have we really?
In the U.S., presidents have used their bully pulpit to set the tone for a civil and civilized conversation. The present occupant of the office is incapable of doing that. Many of us erroneously believed that, after elections, candidate Donald Trump would morph into presidential Donald Trump. We were wrong.
He bullied his way to the Republican nomination, insulting and abusing anyone who stood up to him along the way, including the other Republican candidates. He played the house then and he is still doing it.
Gone are the promises that he will be the President of all Americans. He has been and remains the President of his own die-hard base of supporters. The Republican Party, despite a majority in both houses of Congress, is paralyzed by inaction.
Mr. Trump is most energized when he is among his myopic supporters. These are the same people that cheered candidate Trump’s racist remarks, as well his mockery of a disabled reporter. And the same crowd cheered when he promised to help defend them if they beat up dissenters in the crowd.
The same crowd is now cheering him for his zero-tolerance illegal immigration policy. The policy is so cruel that some of President Trump’s fervent supporters, the Christian evangelists, have spoken out against it. Franklin Graham, an ardent supporter of the President, called the policy of separating children from the parents “disgraceful.”
The Southern Baptist Convention also opposed it, and the Pope and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called it immoral. Rabbis, nuns, and Jesuits characterized the policy as unconscionable and a travesty.
And what is the Trump administration’s response? Drag religion into the controversy.
While defending zero tolerance policy, Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted Romans 13 from the New Testament. He probably forgot, or did not know, that the same biblical reference had been used at various times in the history of the U.S. to justify conflicting and opposing opinions.
It was used by the loyalists to oppose the American Revolution and to preach loyalty to the crown. Paradoxically, it was also used by the revolutionaries to end the unjust authority of the king. Later, the same chapter was used by the anti-abolitionists to justify and legitimize the keeping of slaves.
The trouble is most scriptures do not come with explanatory footnotes and, thus, political opportunists use the same passages to justify their own inhumane and nefarious designs and actions.
After blaming Democrats for the border fiasco and expressing his legal inability to do something about the policy, the President retreated and, through an executive order, stopped the practice of separating children from the parents. But by then, thousands of families had already been torn apart. Now, a federal judge has ordered the government to reunite children with their parents within a month.
All this could have been avoided if Mr. Trump had issued the executive order when the controversy first erupted, rather than painting himself into a corner with his uncompromising attitude. It was only when he saw part of his loyal base crumbling that he took action.
But by then, God had already been dragged into the foray.
Attorney General Session’s tenuous reliance on the scripture, as well as the less-than-ringing endorsement of his remarks by Ms. Sanders, reminds me of a poem written during World War I by Sir John Squire, an English poet, about God:
God heard embattled nations sing and shout
“Gott strafe England!’ and “God save the king!”
God this, God that and God the other thing—
“Good God!’ said God, “I’ve my work cut out!”
Yes, we need civil discourse in our interactions with each other. But we also need policies in our country that are compassionate and humane. And we must get away from the echo chambers that all we seem to dwell in.
S. Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and humanities at the University of Toledo. His column appears every other week in The Blade. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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