Two weeks ago, a 21-year old white man shot to death nine African-American parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In the aftermath, one of the enduring debates has been whether the star-and-bar Confederate flag holds inappropriate racist overtones and should be removed from the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse.
It is not the first time that idea has been suggested—like five years earlier when Clementa Pinckney, a former state representative who was among those killed at the church shooting, tried to introduce such legislation. But the conciliatory tone over the past week to recognize that the Confederate flag is an inappropriate holdover was so far-reaching that even Warner Brothers, which owns the rights to "Dukes of Hazard," announced they will remove the Confederate flag decals from any future representations of the General Lee, the iconic red Dodge Charger. Likewise, calling the Confederate flag an "insensitive symbol," the chairman for NASCAR banned the flag from its events. And, with earnest apologies issued by the governor of South Carolina and lawmakers for not acting sooner, the tone over the past week has been conciliatory—and one not heard often enough in 21st century political debates.
Amazingly, that tone also has carried through to what could have been a fiery debate about same-sex marriage. On Friday, the Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 decision that legalizes same-sex marriages in all states. Although some presidential hopefuls tried to grab headlines by proclaiming their dismay and Justice Antonin Scalia unleashed a dissenting rant, those opinions were largely viewed as aberrations.
Instead, the predominant tone about what has been a difficult issue for many people has been respectful. Oregon House Republican Leader Mike McLane (R-Powell Butte), for example, issued a kind and empathic statement from Salem: "For those that believe marriage is a legal union between two people that is recognized and enforced by government, today's Supreme Court ruling is a confirmation of last summer's federal court ruling in the state of Oregon," McLane stated in a press release. He goes on to express understanding for those who hold a different opinion, that marriage is more a religious, not civic, issue: "For those that believe marriage is a religious covenant, the origin of which predates America, today's Supreme Court ruling won't change that," he said. And then, finally, McLane respectfully asks for embracing both viewpoints: "My hope is that the process of reconciliation in America will continue as we move forward with respect for each other," he says.
It is truly a classy statement.
Unfortunately, leadership for the Deschutes County Republicans took an entirely different approach, one out of step with Republican leadership in Salem and against conciliation.
"In an unprecedented move," proclaims a newsletter sent last Friday from the Deschutes County Republican Party, "the [Supreme] Court dictated that all 50 states must redefine marriage to include same-sex marriage. This is a major setback for the religious liberty movement. Now is the time for conservatives to act."
As if not enough, the newsletter goes on to encourage people to attend an event featuring an 83-year-old Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio, who has garnered national attention as a purposefully divisive public figure on immigration and racial issues. He dubs himself "America's Toughest Sheriff," but the New York Times editorial board has labeled him as "America's worst sheriff," and the U.S. Department of Justice has alleged he has overseen the worst pattern of racial profiling in the history of U.S. prisons and policing.
We certainly encourage the expression of varying viewpoints, but promoting divisiveness and purposefully controversial figures does so with the wrong tone, especially when other political leaders are making earnest efforts to strike a more conciliatory dialogue.