The Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College was tagged by a swastika Tuesday, Jan 3. HUC is the first permanent Jewish institution of higher learning and was established in 1875. They now have multiple campuses in New York, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem. As their president notes, “For more than 140 years HUC-JIR has been committed to being the liberal, open and welcoming center of Jewish life and education.”
If this were an isolated incident, perhaps we could dismiss it as an immature (and potentially dangerous) child running around with spray paint. Unfortunately, it’s not isolated, but is likely part of a recent string of racist incidents in the wake of the November election. Many blame Trump’s rhetoric for inspiring this sort of brazen racism, and certainly he has emboldened white nationalists.
Thankfully he did issue one statement in which he told these actors to “stop it,” but it will take much more than one statement for him to slow the momentum that he generated throughout the election.
Christians will be (or should be) extra sensitive to acts of antisemitism such as this, given our connection to the Jewish people and the fact that the Holocaust is still only 80 years in our past. Those of a more dispensational outlook will perhaps be even more disturbed, although in truth everyone, no matter their religious persuasion, should be disturbed by these acts and forthrightly condemn them.
The immorality of these acts is enough to rouse condemnation, but perhaps even more pressing is the threat they pose to religious liberty. The white nationalist strand that is rising up post-November supposes they are reclaiming the American heritage of white supremacy. But despite this claim, their ideology is quite the opposite of what many revolutionaries and founders intended.
For example, in Common Sense, Thomas Paine hoped America could establish a national government, “securing freedom and property to all men, and above all things, the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” In Federalist no. 5, John Jay quoted approvingly from Queen Anne’s 1706 letter to the Scottish Parliament, in which she claimed that forming the British union would “secure your religion, liberty, and property.” So too Jay hoped the Americans would adopt the proposed Constitution so it would protect their freedom to practice whatever religion they might see fit.
In the third of the Letters from an American Farmer, we find the ideal of religious pluralism set forth:
When any considerable number of a particular sect happen to dwell contiguous to each other, they immediately erect a temple, and there worship the Divinity agreeably to their own peculiar ideas. Nobody disturbs them. If any new sect springs up in Europe, it may happen that many of its professors will come and settle in America. As they bring their zeal with them, they are at liberty to make proselytes if they can, and to build a meeting and to follow the dictates of their consciences; for neither the government nor any other power interferes. If they are peaceable subjects, and are industrious, what is it to their neighbours how and in what manner they think fit to address their prayers to the Supreme Being?
Thus, aside from the moral repugnance of tagging a Hebrew college’s sign with a swastika, the ideology of this surging white nationalist strain runs contrary to the intentions of many American revolutionaries and founders, not to mention those who fled England for their own freedom of religion. And of course, the passing of the First Amendment enshrined Americans’ desire for true freedom of religious expression and for religious toleration as described in the quote above.
I believe Christians should speak the loudest here. We’re called to love our neighbors and to join God in his quest to fight for the downtrodden and oppressed. But prophetic condemnation of this surging white supremacy will not suffice to disturb their consciences or to shut them down. Indeed, as Richard Spencer recently said in his speech “hailing” Trump and “hailing” victory, these white nationalists believe America is “our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”
Aside from moral disapproval, the church must also bring an informed, compassionate, and intellectual response to defeat the racist ideological claims of those who lash out in hate simply because of difference in descent or religious practice.