Americans must stand up for democracy, not demagoguery

We are both Americans, but couldn’t be any more different: Coal country vs. Maine’s shoreline. Democrat vs. Republican. We hail from different parts of the country, follow different religions, and belong to different political parties. But we are Americans, dedicated to serving our nation and the people who elected us. While we may not have grown up in the same neighborhoods, worship in the same way, or agree on all policy positions, we want what’s best for our country.

That is the beauty of America: Our nation is made up of millions of people, and not one grew up the same. We share little but a faith in the American Dream: By working hard, we can create a better life for our children. By working together, we can create a future a shade brighter. The fact that we are stronger together, no matter our backgrounds or our faiths, is the very basis for the motto of the United States, E Pluribus Unum: “Out of Many, One.”

For many Americans, our faith is as much a part of our identity as our names. Our ancestors, whether Huguenots or Holocaust survivors, fled distant shores seeking a better life, free from religious persecution. What they found was a nation dedicated to liberty, where religious tolerance is enshrined in the Constitution, the bedrock foundation of our nation. Today we worship in churches, temples, and mosques, but we too worship at the shrine of liberty, celebrating the freedom of religion our ancestors sought.

Unfortunately, some seek to use our faith as a tool to sow discontent and division. Since virtually the founding of our nation, people have attempted to divide us by religion, riling up the masses in get-out-the-vote drives of the worst kind. During dark moments in American history, we’ve seen Protestants pitted against Catholics, Christians against Jews. Today, those same forces demonize Muslim Americans.

When John F. Kennedy was elected president more than a half-century ago, it was a shock to the system and a vital blow on behalf of civility and religious tolerance. While some feared that he, as a Catholic, “owed allegiance to a foreign power,” the pope, they couldn’t have been more wrong. President Kennedy lifted up the nation in a way few presidents ever have, challenging the United States to reach for the stars and sowing the seeds for the Civil Rights Act and an end to Jim Crow. It was only because Americans exercised religious tolerance and civility that we triumphed, together.

Kennedy inspired a generation, but what would have happened if more Americans had voted against him because of his religion? If today we exercise intolerance instead of religious freedom, casting out an entire group of Americans, what will happen? What ideas will we lose? If we allow incivility and prejudice to win the day, will America deny the election of its first Jewish president or refuse the orders of a Muslim general?

It should be of no surprise that Americans overwhelmingly agree that this is the most uncivil election in decades, and that includes religious intolerance. From a presidential candidate suggesting that he would ban all Muslims from entering the country, to the anti-Semitic slurs hurled at congressional candidates, this election has seen some of the most uncivil and intolerant behavior in decades. This is unacceptable.

Democracy only works if we treat each other with civility, and that includes religious tolerance. Respecting the religious views of your neighbor is as important as respecting their political beliefs. Just as we cannot allow partisan zealotry to stand in the way of political progress, we cannot allow religious extremists to define a whole religion. That’s why we’re working with the National Institute for Civil Discourse, which launched its national #ReviveCivility campaign to restore civility during this uncivil time. We need Americans to stand up to religious intolerance when they see it, and stand up for democracy, not demagoguery.

We have faith in a bright future for America, but if only we work together across partisan and religious lines. We must revive civility, together.

Roger Katz is a Republican state senator from Augusta. John Unger is a Democratic state senator from West Virginia. Both are members of the National Institute for Civil Discourse’s Next Generation program, which works with state legislatures to address hyperpolarization and incivility at the state level.


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