For months now, we have been bombarded by exhortations about “making America great again.” This mean-spirited and polarizing campaign slogan speaks of an American greatness that I do not recognize or honor. A completely subjective Google search identified the following definitions of American greatness that ring true for me:  

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [sic] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (Declaration of Independence)

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.  (Emma Lazarus, engraved on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty)

This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in. (Theodore Roosevelt, http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org/site/c.elKSIdOWIiJ8H/b.9297493/k.7CB9/Quotations_from_the_speeches_and_other_works_of_Theodore_Roosevelt.htm)

Admittedly, the search was conducted by a died-in-the-wool liberal, raised by parents who were as devoted to the Democratic Party as to the Jewish people.  National greatness, of course, is a deeply subjective thing. For a less partisan definition of national greatness, one might ask how the religious texts most honored by Americans throughout our history have defined national identity.

In the Five Books of Moses (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), one commandment appears more frequently than any other—thirty-six times, in fact.  It is the command to love, embrace, and do justice for the stranger. We are commanded to champion the needs of the “stranger, the orphan and the widow.” “Do not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20–23) “Do not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) “God upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow and loves the stranger, providing him/her with food and clothing. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:18–19)“You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger, the orphan . . . Remember that you were a slave in Egypt. . . .” (Deuteronomy 24:17–18)

At the very heart of biblical law and theology is the memory that the Israelites (the forebears of the Jewish people) were collectively formed in the cauldron of slavery, a land of persecution and dehumanization. Those who hold the Bible sacred – Jews, Christians, and Muslims, are enjoined to draw on our memories of oppression for the benefit of all peoples.  The lesson to be learned from our ancestors’ experience in slavery is to work unceasingly on behalf of those on the margins—for the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the stranger.

 

The lesson to be learned from our ancestors’ experience in slavery is to work unceasingly on behalf of those on the margins—for the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the stranger.

Several analysts have written that Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America great again,” is code for “Make America White Again.”  I might say that the meaning is broader still.  “Make American Great Again” means “Make America Ours Again.”   In a time of frighteningly rapid demographic change, economic anxiety, and challenges to long-trusted social institutions, fear understandably arises.  We know that the human spirit narrows in the face of danger and hurt, allowing us to forget our deepest beliefs and commitments. When we feel threatened, attention becomes constricted, and we tend to focus narrowly, on personal concerns. In a time of rampant pain and fear, distressingly broad swaths of American society turn against the “other.” The “us” is white, Christian, American-born males.  The “others” are people of color, non-Christians, those who have immigrated to America, and, as always, women.  In this sense, Trump’s racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic rhetoric becomes comprehensible (though still reprehensible).

Sadly, Muslims fall at the confluence of three of the “outsider” categories.  Muslims have long been religiously “other” from the perspective of Christianity.  A large percentage of American Muslims are people of color, and many have immigrated to the United States in the past generation or two.  So while Trump’s hateful words have encompassed many groups, Islamophobia encompasses three of the categories of outsiders who presumably obstruct America’s return to greatness.

America must indeed return to its essence—a national value system that includes embrace of the immigrant, openness toward people of many faiths and no faith, and a leap beyond its original sin of racism.  Inciting hate toward Muslims, Mexicans, African-Americans, women, and any who disagree with us will only compromise America’s character, and make a mockery of the religions we hold sacred.

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