Maybe we were out of town and missed the press conference.

Surely, there was one called by religious leaders to condemn the grotesque anti-Semitism in the flyer attacking U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen by a doctrine-starved Middle Tennessee preacher.

Surely, our religious leaders – the majority of whom are either Jewish or worship a Jew – spoke out against the ugly hate in our midst.

Surely, our Christian ministers and priests – whatever their color – took the opportunity to explain why the flyer is a blasphemous deconstruction of their faith.

Intolerant Of Intolerance

Surely, our faith community signaled that our city will take a no tolerance approach to any kind of hate – race or religion.

Unfortunately, we fear that our ministers, priests and rabbis squandered a perfect opportunity to stand together and send the message that hate-filled behavior and rhetoric will not be tolerated in Memphis.

It wasn’t that many years ago that these same kinds of tactics were used to slander and malign African-Americans running for office here. If they were wrong then, they are wrong now.

Ghost Of Falwell

Unfortunately, a double standard often seems to apply to Rep. Cohen. We understand that there are some African-American ministers who feel strongly that whoever is their congressman needs to share their skin color. We understand also that there is the unfortunate attitude these days that there are no rules in political campaigns: anything goes.

It’s inarguable – at least to us – that we’ve allowed too many people already to cross the line on what should be considered unacceptable behavior in Memphis. Perhaps, that’s even why a misguided Murfreesboro minister could reach the conclusion that his inflammatory flyer about Rep. Cohen would find a welcome home in Memphis.

After all, it’s been only a few months ago that a group of African-American Baptist leaders channeled a brand of intolerance and misinformation that would have made the late Jerry Falwell proud as Congressman Cohen tried to explain a hate crime bill.

New Maturity

Some ministers in attendance were just as embarrassed by their colleagues’ rude behavior as any other Memphian of good will, but most held their tongues as the congressman was chastised, scolded and upbraided by members of the Baptist Ministerial Association.

It’s a troubling trend in our city these days. Moderate and progressive African-American leaders often seem unwilling to call down the unreasonable, outrageous comments of the few, whether it is the Ministerial Association, Memphis City Council or the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

We seem to still be in a period of transition in Memphis as mainstream African-American leaders come to grips with a central fact of life – they are now in charge – and because of it, when they criticize someone of the same color, it is not an act of treason but a test of mature leadership.

Jesus For Jews

Most troubling to us at the time was the undertow of gangrenous anti-Semitism in it. One Ministerial Association member had even told his congregation that “someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus shouldn’t be representing us.” Of course, the fact that Jesus was a Jew seems to elude him as much as the basic knowledge of his own religion’s tenets.

Oddly enough, in Revolutionary America, it was the Baptist clergy who called the loudest for the separation of church and state and who stood against religious tests for office. Now, just as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have mistakenly said that God takes sides in presidential elections, our own Baptist ministers mistakenly believe that he has taken sides in Memphis Democratic politics.

We sure hope that God is spending his day on more important issues. To most of us who become spectators to these kinds of events and pronouncements, we simply feel like they trivialize our faith and that our faith is being stolen. It’s time to reclaim it.

The Essence

That’s because this is about something much more important than politics or elected officials. It is the essence of who we are as a people.

We remember a few years ago when Goals for Memphis led a campaign for Memphians to take a pledge that they would be no longer remain silent in the face of racial jokes, racial invective and racial prejudice. It was a refreshing call to arms for tolerance, the most frequently missing virtue in our city.

Perhaps, we need to ramp the pledge campaign again, and this time, we should include religious tolerance.

While we’re at it, let’s even apply a political tactic – the war room. Let’s develop a rapid response team that refuses to let any slur pass and to remain silent about hate-filled rhetoric and behavior. In addition, we need to call on every candidate to take the pledge to refrain from any campaign tactics that attack a person’s race, religion or sexual preference.

Fight The Good Fight

It’s blindingly obvious that Rep. Cohen will be opposed by Pinnacle Airline executive Nikki Tinker in the upcoming Congressional race, and although she was excruciatingly slow in renouncing the anti-Semitic flyer, she finally did so firmly and even promised that she would never engage in this kind of politicking.

That’s a major step forward, so we think that she and Congressman Cohen should be the first people to sign up for our war room against bigotry.

Perhaps, that more than anything would send the uncompromising message to the rest of the country that the times are changing in Memphis, because we simply will not allow racial and religious hatred of our neighbors and fellow citizens to go unanswered.

In a city where race and politics are inextricably linked – and where we never tire of talking about it – we can start by getting the tone right. In so doing, we serve notice to the rest of the country that it’s a new day in Memphis.