On Scott Walker and Demonization in American Politics

I do not know Governor Walker. I have never met him; I don’t know that I’ve ever actually seen him in person although Grace Episcopal Church, of which I am Rector, stands opposite the State Capitol of Wisconsin, and over the last four years I have been an eyewitness of the effects of his slash and burn politics.

With re-election in hand and a successful debut on the Iowa Republican stage, Governor Walker now seems to be a legitimate candidate for the Republican nomination for president. He has made some mis-steps, including fumbling responses to questions about evolution and President Obama’s faith on the national and international stage. But today he took it one step further.

In a speech at CPAC, he compared his success at pushing his agenda past 100,000 protestors to his ability to fight ISIS and other terrorists. His campaign quickly tried to make the best of his remark, but it reveals a sad truth in American politics, and in Governor Walker’s worldview. For Walker, and too many American politicians (and their supporters), one’s opponents are not people of good will who look on the world differently and come to different conclusions about what is best for a city, state, or nation. One’s opponents are inveterate evil, savages, barbarians, incapable of rational thought. While these views are present on both left and right, and too often I have heard educated Wisconsinites dismiss Walker as ignorant and evil, such ideas seem to be more prevalent on the right than on the left. One need only to cite Rudy Giuliani’s recent remarks concerning President Obama’s patriotism as evidence.

Still, for Governor Walker to compare, even in passing, Wisconsin’s protestors with ISIS fighters is revealing. To my knowledge, he never attempted to engage protestors, or even Democratic members of the Assembly or Senate in conversation about what might be best for Wisconsin. This weeks developments concerning Right-to-Work legislation is a perfect example. He said while campaigning that such legislation wasn’t a priority, but now, once introduced, he’s ready to sign it. He picks his targets, fires, and worries not about who is directly affected by it nor by what collateral damage might be inflicted. And for him, in some way, the image of ISIS fighters executing Coptic Christians is comparable to Wisconsin teachers protesting budget cuts, and presumably, the same teachers are as evil as ISIS fighters.

Throughout the last four years, I have consistently tried to make a case that Wisconsin, and our nation, needs to create ways of coming together to work toward the greater good of the community. We face significant issues. The racial disparities in our state and county are mind-boggling; the economy continues to create deeper inequalities. These are issues that can only be solved when the whole community, the state, the nation, comes together to develop solutions, and recognizes that individual sacrifices may be necessary to advance the common good. But from what I can tell, Governor Walker, and too many other politicians, are only interested in consolidating their power. They want to divide and conquer.

But when our governor, now a leading Presidential candidate, reveals that his worldview sees his opponents as somehow equivalent to terrorists and ISIS executioners, I despair. I think of all those who came into Grace Church four years ago seeking warmth and solace during the protests–black and white, mothers and fathers from across the state, children, teens, college students, worried about their jobs, worried about their communities, worried about their futures. I wonder whether Governor Walker ever talked to any of them, ever tried to see the face of Jesus Christ in them. I wonder whether he has spoken with UW faculty, administrators, or students, who wonder whether their livelihoods or futures are secure, wonder whether Wisconsin will be a place where they can make a home and a life for themselves. I wonder whether he thinks they are equivalent to terrorists.

Don’t misunderstand me. I think the Democrats in Wisconsin have consistently misplayed their hand. They have underestimated Walker’s political skills; they have underestimated the depth of the disaffection among many voters; and they have been unable to articulate a compelling alternate vision of our state’s future. The protests this week were pathetic–not because their goal was wrong, but because they were a faint echo of the protests four years ago; protests that for all their power and energy, failed to prevent Walker’s agenda. 

I fear for our nation. We have seen the relentless attacks on President Obama’s patriotism, his faith, his character. We seem to be more deeply divided than ever. While members of Congress have not taken to pistol-whipping each other on the floor of the house as they did in the years running up to the Civil War, we are in a very dark place. And although we are a year away from the presidential election, I despair about the potential candidates in both parties. I doubt any of them have the ability to unite the people of our nation around common goals and purpose. Instead, I expect the demonization will only continue, the hatred among us only intensify.

“Concealed Carry” and the Love of Christ

Among the bills passed by Wisconsin’s legislature and signed into law by Governor Walker, is one permitting “concealed carry” of handguns. It will go into effect in November and has caused consternation in many quarters. Churches and other property owners are permitted to put up signs that state weapons are forbidden to ensure that law-abiding citizens carrying guns will not bring them onto premises. Grace Church already has a published policy (in our employee handbook) that forbids weapons on church property.

There is considerable discussion about how churches should respond. The Wisconsin Council of Churches has produced material to help churches decide and the Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee will debate a  resolution that recommends forbidding weapons on all property owned by, or held in trust for, the Diocese (which would include all churches and rectories): concealedcarryresolution

There was lively debate about the resolution at yesterday’s clergy day. I am opposed to the law and to any law that increases the possibility of violence in our community. However, I am also mindful of my own experience. When we were living in Tennessee back in the 1990s, I remember the first time I noticed the sign forbidding weapons on the entry doors of the Chattanooga airport. I was relieved to know that weapons were prohibited in the airport (this was years before 9-11) but suddenly I realized the sign meant that people carrying concealed weapons were out on the streets, in stores and restaurants, and the like. Tennessee was then, and undoubtedly remains, a violent state. While we lived there, several local county courthouses were bombed with dynamite by disgruntled citizens.

Signs forbidding weapons in churches remind us that churches are sanctuaries, places of peace, and link us to the long history of churches providing safe havens for people threatened by violence. At the same time, such signs prominently displayed can arouse fear and suspicion.

As churches, we are to offer a message of love and hope, not fear and the question for me is whether chilling signs with handguns prominently displayed that inevitably remind us of the violence inherent in our society, proclaim the love of Christ.