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Words Can Kill

Words Can Kill
Last week, Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich committed suicide. A rising Republican political star who had recently announced his bid for Missouri governor, his death shocked politicians and journalists across the state. A good politician representing a wing of the Republican Party that has been largely pushed out by the extreme positions of the "Tea Party," Schweich's death leaves a void in Missouri politics.

Reports quickly emerged about nasty personal attacks Schweich faced from political opponents within the Republican Party. A secretive PAC supporting his main primary opponent ran an ad that mocked his personal appearance. The newly-elected state Republican chairman - who previously worked for Schweich's main primary opponent - engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric to claim Schweich is Jewish (he was Episcopalian but his grandfather was Jewish). Such religious-based arguments show a danger of our era of confessional politics.

Following Schweich's death on Thursday and through his funeral yesterday, flags around the state went to half-staff. At the funeral, Schweich's political mentor and former boss John Danforth delivered a powerful eulogy. Danforth, a longtime U.S. Senator from Missouri and an Episcopalian priest, offered important remarks that documented what is wrong with politics today. His eulogy should be read and considered by politicians and religious leaders across the country.

"Tom was the model for what a public servant should be," Danforth stated in his eulogy. "He was exceptionally bright, energetic and well organized. He was highly ethical, and like the indignant prophets of Biblical times, he was passionate about his responsibility for righting wrongs."

"We spoke often about the calling to public service, and what we said was always the same," Danforth added. "The objective should be always to take the high ground and never give it up."

Danforth did not mention the state Republican chairman - John Hancock - by name, but he clearly condemned Hancock's anti-Semitic whisper campaign and lame "Presbyterian" defense given after Schweich's death. It's hard to see how Hancock, who didn't even show up at the funeral, will keep his job after Danforth's eulogy.

"Tom called this anti-Semitism, and of course it was," Danforth argued. "The only reason for going around saying that someone is Jewish is to make political profit from religious bigotry. Someone said this was no different than saying a person is a Presbyterian. Here’s how to test the credibility of that remark: When was the last time anyone sidled up to you and whispered into your ear that such and such a person is a Presbyterian?"

"Anti-Semitism is always wrong and we can never let it creep into politics," Danforth added. "Let’s pledge that we will not put up with any whisper of anti-Semitism. We will stand against it as Americans and because our own faith demands it."

"We read stories about cyberbullying, and hear of young girls who killed themselves because of it," Danforth stated. "But what should we expect from children when grown ups are their examples of how bullies behave?"

"Since Thursday, some good people have said, 'Well that’s just politics,'" Danforth added. "And Tom should have been less sensitive; he should have been tougher, and he should have been able to take it. Well, that is accepting politics in its present state and that we cannot do. It amounts to blaming the victim, and it creates a new normal, where politics is only for the tough and the crude and the calloused. Indeed, if this is what politics has become, what decent person would want to get into it? We should encourage normal people - yes, sensitive people - to seek public office, not drive them away."

"I believe deep in my heart that it’s now our duty, yours and mine, to turn politics into something much better than its now so miserable state," Danforth urged. "We will see bullies for who they are. We will no longer let them hide behind their anonymous pseudo-committees. We will not accept their way as the way of politics. We will stand up to them and we will defeat them."

Danforth, a former lawyer and former state Attorney General, used a legal analogy (the "thin skull rule") to explain that political "bullies" should be held accountable for their words. He then made important comments about the power of words.

"We often hear that words can’t hurt you," Danforth said. "But that’s simply not true. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said just the opposite. Words for Jesus could be the moral equivalent of murder. He said if we insult a brother or sister we will be liable. He said if we call someone a fool we will be liable to hell. Well how about anti-Semitic whispers? And how about a radio ad that calls someone a 'little bug,' and that is run anonymously over and over again?

"Words do hurt," Danforth added. "Words can kill. That has been proven right here in our home state."

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