Faith in politics

March 22, 2022 3:00 am

Augustana Lutheran Church at 38th Street and Lafayette Avenue in Omaha. (Cate Folsom/Nebraska Examiner)

There is a common piece of wisdom passed down through generations that, while in polite company, one should not discuss religion or politics. It’s a shame that ever became a cultural norm here in America. When we are open to one another and let ourselves be known, we build trusting relationships. We come to understand that we have common goals, and those trusting relationships enable us to find solutions.

Discussions about religion were always fraught with landmines in my family. It was always a little bit more complicated since my father was raised in a strong Irish Catholic family and my mother came from an equally strong Swedish Lutheran family. My parents were married in the Catholic Church, and I was baptized Catholic. I was raised, however, in the Lutheran Church. Our church, Augustana Lutheran, was established by mostly Swedish immigrants and still serves the community from its location at 38th  Street and Lafayette Avenue here in Omaha.

My maternal great-grandfather was a Swedish immigrant who developed the largest men’s and women’s clothing store between Denver and Chicago. When my mother’s parents married, my grandfather entered his wife’s family business and, in fact, took his wife’s surname. (He was born Otto Liljenstolpe and changed his name to Otto Swanson upon marrying my grandmother.) The Swedish and Lutheran traditions were inexorably tied in with the business. There was no disconnect. Those traditions demanded that we be open, in heart and in business, to people from all cultures, religions and races. The immigrants the business hired created a wonderfully diverse community within the store.

Threw them out

In 1937, the forces that enabled the Nazis to gain power in Europe were present in the United States, as well, and came to Omaha. There was a small but vocal group of Omahans who pushed for a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses, mostly small businesses and restaurants. When this group approached my grandfather to join them in the boycott, Otto not only refused but threw them out of his office. He then went on to join with one of his best friends, Morris Jacobs, a Jewish founder of the Bozell and Jacobs advertising firm, to start the first Nebraska chapter of what was originally called the National Coalition of Christians and Jews. The local organization has continuously evolved over the years and is known now as Inclusive Communities, whose mission endures to fight discrimination, bigotry, and hate.

Otto Swanson’s religious and cultural traditions, as well the circumstances surrounding him, seemed to galvanize him into social justice and set the course for our family. He was decorated by the King of Sweden for helping to finance Jewish emigration from Europe to Sweden during World War II.

The era around WWII gave us some of worst examples of weaponizing religion, as well as some of the best inspirational acts of religion actualized. And today we can find countless examples on both sides of this spectrum. In the same manner that I beseech our political figures to ignore the party of those with whom they wish to engage, we must stop labeling people based on their faith. Whether a follower of an organized religion, an atheist or agnostic, or a spiritual person without a religious affiliation, we must start with the premise that the other is a person of good will, of good conscience.

My diagnosis of brain cancer has given me freedom. While my physical abilities are limited, my mind and soul have never been more alive. I am free to spend my time thinking about what is really important. And my faith has come to the forefront.

I am in awe of those I have encountered throughout my life who represent the best of their faith traditions. And all faiths seem to share a basic common morality. Our faiths instruct us to care for our fellow humans, to leave this Earth better than how we entered it.

Important source of strength

During these times when my physical and emotional being are challenged as never before, my faith is an important source of strength. I look back to the examples I follow, the mentors who have influenced me. From my first connection with Ernie Chambers and my church, working to integrate with Black churches to drive home racial equality.  From the spiritual guidance granted to me by Father Tom Fangman and other Catholic priests as they share their beliefs in such an open and giving manner. From the Tri-Faith Initiative bringing together Christianity, Islam and Judaism to teach us how to co-exist and nurture one another. From the time Rabbi Aryeh Azriel has spent teaching me a Jewish perspective of the world.  From so many others who have touched my life by living their faith.

All these diverse people have come together in my life to help me reach the understanding that we only become better when we create meaningful relationships of trust. We can only succeed when we see the person, not the label.

I believe in God and the power of prayer. There are moments in life more profound than others, and I am in one of those moments. It is my most fervent prayer that weaponizing faith be erased from existence. That we open our hearts and minds to hear those different from ourselves and take on a New Attitude, fully embracing our diversity so we can conquer the ills of inequity and injustice.

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Brad Ashford
Brad Ashford

Brad Ashford was a public servant and attorney. He served four terms in the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature and one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Brad's later focus was on bringing a New Attitude to all involved in governance — to work together without regard to labels. He died April 19, 2022. His widow, Ann Ashford, continues to share some of Brad's essays with the Nebraska Examiner.