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Guest opinion: Our moral conscience must repudiate white supremacy

White nationalist demonstrators walk into Lee park surrounded by counter demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. Steve Helber, AP

Editor's note: This commentary by J. Spencer Fluhman is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.

For early American abolitionists, the effort to end slavery was nothing short of a God-ordained struggle. In the mid-20th century, religious leaders propelled the civil rights movement. In this nation's past, religious people worked to eradicate racial injustice. They must do so once again.

With shocking regularity, recent American perpetrators of mass violence have described in plain language the ideology that fuels their terrorism. Call it white supremacy. Call it white nationalism. Call it racism.

Those of us who call ourselves Christians, those of us who claim the parable of the good Samaritan as a guide for private and public life, are under a special obligation to affirm God's truth that "all are alike" unto him.

Racism is not a new threat to our peace and prosperity. The country's current strife remains rooted in our original national sins: slavery and the conquest of native peoples. Racism has had numerous social and political manifestations. Indeed, one cannot understand 19th or 20th century U.S. politics without understanding the politics of race. If any of us are unaware of this bitter side of the American story, it's not for lack of available information. So much has been written of this lamentable history, in fact, that ignorance of it tends to be willful. The basic rhythms of this history are readily recognizable to those of us who teach it and write it. So, too, are the terrifyingly predictable results of white nationalist rhetoric and agitation: a bloody toll on black and brown bodies.

Lazy conjecture about perpetrators' alleged mental illness unnecessarily stigmatizes the millions who suffer from mental illness and don't murder innocent people. Moreover, such public handwringing comfortably dodges what the perpetrators are sickeningly eager to reveal about themselves. They have been horrifyingly candid. They hate marginalized "others" — routinely non-white Americans or immigrants — and blame them for various perceived social or political ills.

As was the case with earlier manifestations, a key to modern racism and white supremacy is the stereotyping and scapegoating of entire groups as enemies to be removed or opposed. Political rhetoric dubbing national, ethnic or racial groups as "invaders" or "infestations" or "dirty" or "murderers and rapists" participates in a foul tradition. It has targeted, at various times, African Americans, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, immigrants or asylum-seekers from Central or South America, and others.

"Patriotism," expressed in the language of whose country this is or who should leave it, is not patriotism at all. It is merely another version of assumed white privilege that, in its worst forms, takes lives and destroys futures. Such rhetoric is designed to alienate, blame and incite hatred. Lamentably, it has routinely proven effective in our national history, especially when combined with the mechanisms of state power. Such rhetoric has almost always aimed to secure or bolster political and economic power.

““Patriotism,” expressed in the language of whose country this is or who should leave it, is not patriotism at all.”

The current administration's regular invocation of this rhetoric makes matters immeasurably worse. Moreover, its startlingly inhumane family separation policies represent an attack on the sanctity of the family with few precedents in our past. A sensible and effective immigration policy does not demand such cruelty or draconian tactics. History will not judge these affronts to human decency with a shrug.

Regrettably, given the brokenness of our national discourse, white supremacy can seem like a partisan issue. As recent acts of violence have painfully demonstrated, however, white supremacy is a national calamity, not a partisan debate. The indiscriminate nature of the perpetrators' bullets underscores a somber reality of our national history: racist ideology and violent acts hurt us all. Our children's right to safety in public surely trumps white supremacists' rights to deadly assault weapons. Clearly, these white supremacist militiamen are not "well regulated." Horrified citizens have both the moral and constitutional grounds to ask more from elected officials on both sides of the aisle.

As the death toll climbs, Americans should unite against racism, white nationalist rhetoric and violence in all its forms. Electoral victories or Supreme Court seats are not worth our collective national soul. The temptations that come with proximity to power are obvious and real, but, certainly, this moment calls for statesmanship that rises above short-term political considerations. The time for partisan posturing has long since passed. Our collective response to racism, white supremacy and violence should be nonpartisan, morally convicted and overwhelming.

Silence from good people allows racist rhetoric and hatred to fester. Inaction from those with influence does, too. Religious people must bring our moral convictions to bear on these matters, and we must do so in public. To be effective in this struggle, believers schooled in Christ's teachings must reach beyond denominational, cultural and ethnic boundaries. The costs of ambivalence or apathy or distraction are far too high. God's own vivid, righteous anger at the shedding of innocent blood should urge us on. Who is my neighbor? Who is my enemy? Our voices must speak peace, justice and reconciliation in the midst of this unambiguous national crisis.

J. Spencer Fluhman is executive director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. His opinions are his own and do not represent official statements of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.