How a rabbi and an evangelical pastor are fighting white supremacy together – USA TODAY

Posted By on January 1, 2022

We cannot let manipulators and extremists continue their self-serving battle at the expense of the majority.

Tom Krattenmaker| Opinion contributor

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Depressed by the mutual contempt in which the two Americas hold one another? By the gloom hanging over what is supposed to be a season of light?

I certainly am. But I am lifted by the story of Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin and evangelical pastor Tom Breeden and the work theyve been doing together since the infamous "Unite the Right" rally violated their city of Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.

Rather than running for the shelter of like-minded liberals as she was tempted to do, Schmelkin has thrown herself into the work of reducing identity-based violence and hate. She has found a ready partner in Breedenwho, contrary to oversimplified notions about evangelicals, shares her commitment to restoring decency to public life.

Cute story, we might think, but not widely applicable. We would be wrong. Despite what the division-mongers tell us (because their strategies depend on it) research shows that Americans are not hopelessly divided. Given a few more incentives and a larger share of the spotlight, what we share could upstage what separates us.

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Schmelkin was new in her rabbinate atCongregation Beth Israel when white nationalists rampaged through the city with torches and vile chants like Jews will not replace us.As she recently told Religion News Service, The Unite the Right rally was the most terrifying experience of my entire life. I had never seen extremism like that up close, and I never feared for my safety as a Jewish person. It changed me.

When theOne America Movementinvited her to join a clergy group that included evangelical pastors, Schmelkin initially balked. Now shes glad she assented.

Im not going to sit down with someone who wants to harm me. But there are people with whom I can sit down, even though I might feel uncomfortable, she said.

When Breeden was invited to join the group, he, too, was reluctant.Ina profile on the One America website, Breeden said:At first I was a little suspicious. Most of the clergy groups that I had experienced were not a great use of time, but Im so glad I gave this one a shot!

Breeden who, like Schmelkin, now works for the One America Movement elaborated in an email exchange with me: Ive seen the effects of toxic polarization up close. Its tearing apart communities, and churches arent exempt from the damage. Ive also personally experienced the possibility of the alternative. Im motivated to do this work because Ive seen first-hand that it can be done, and I want other people to have hope in a better future than our divisions threaten.

Nice thought, you might say. But surely, those extremists on the other side have to be stopped before they destroy our communities and country.

Its true the zealots are out there, and you see them portrayed daily on Fox News, MSNBCand the like. But data showthey are not representative of the people and ideas on the other side of the divide, whichever side youre on.

Polling by the group More in Commonfinds that on many of the issues that divide Democrats and Republicans, people have a grossly distorted idea of what the other side believes.

For instance, Republicans in the study estimate that fewer than half of Democrats disagree that "most police are bad people." In truth, 85%of Dems reject that sweeping condemnation of police.

On immigration, Democrats estimate that only about half of Republicans agree that properly controlled immigration is good for America. The reality: More than 75%of Republicans hold that positive view of orderly immigration.

Overall, the research finds, there is a massive gap between our perception of extreme views in the other party and theactualprevalence of such views.It would be tragic beyond measure if the country gave up on our noble experiment in democracy and fell into some kind of civil war based on each sides misunderstanding of what it is up against.

Not to be nave. There are real differences between liberal and conservative America, and our ways of responding to those differences are not equally loathsome. Only one party is pushing lies about the validity of the 2020 presidential election and enacting legislation that threatens fair voting.

But its also true that regardless of the ground we occupy, we all carry around false ideas about the everyday people on the other side, and our own public citizenship is based, in large part, on those false notions.

Given the tremendous force propelling conflict and division the degree to which all the incentives and algorithms seem to favor toxic polarization havent we reached the point where resistance is futile? Where its too late to stop the runaway train?

Not yet. But to slow it down and steer it away from the cliff, everyday citizens willhave to jump off and use our combined weight to turn our public life in a better direction.

We cannot let the manipulators and extremists on both sides continue their self-serving battle at the expense of, and against the wishes of, the non-extremists who constitute the majority.

That starts with all of us correcting our understanding of who our supposed enemies are and discovering that they are, on the whole,notour enemies. We can do that only by getting to know each other better.

Tom Krattenmaker,amember of USA TODAYs Board of Contributors, writes on religion and values in public life and directs communications at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower. Follow him on Twitter:@krattenmaker

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How a rabbi and an evangelical pastor are fighting white supremacy together - USA TODAY

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