On Jan. 20, I walked out of the State Department for the last time, capping 13 years of public service in Washington that also included stints on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the U.S. Agency for International Development. In early July, I landed in Boise with my wife and young baby to start a new chapter in Idaho as the Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs at Boise State University. It’s been a dizzying year and a sharp transition from Washington, but we are grateful to be here.
One of the first trips we took after unpacking our bags was to visit the Bethine and Frank Church Scenic Overlook, near the summit of Galena Pass. I wanted to appreciate firsthand the landscape that so inspired the Churches. We were awestruck by the sweeping views of the Sawtooth Mountains and the headwaters of the Salmon River. It is a moment that lingers as I settle into university life and reflect upon Church’s legacy.
The peacefulness of this scene could not contrast more sharply with the turbulence and disorientation of our country’s politics. Every day seems to bring a new indignity or shock before we’ve had a chance to process the preceding one. I’ve come to Idaho with the goal of restoring civility to our discourse and engaging with the community on important foreign policy issues that I believe deserve real discussion. To some extent, I believe I’m making progress. I’ve had genuine discussions about the nature of the North Korean threat and the prospects of a nuclear crisis. I’ve talked about my concern that the president is hemorrhaging U.S. credibility and leadership and making our country less safe as a result.
When the violence in Charlottesville broke out, my head spun once again. I thought the scenes I witnessed — the venomous racist chants, the unabashed expressions of white supremacy, the killing of an innocent protester by a hate-filled act of terrorism — were acts mostly consigned to the past. I can’t say that I was shocked by the utter abdication of moral leadership by the president. But his actions were appalling nonetheless. How have we reached a point in our history where our president believes that blame for the violence in Charlottesville should be equally apportioned between neo-Nazis, the KKK and peaceful counterprotesters?
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I’ve asked myself what Frank Church would say.
He also lived in a complicated time. The United States was embroiled in a deeply unpopular war in Vietnam without an end in sight. Pitched battles were being fought daily between unrepentant segregationists and nonviolent civil rights activists demanding equality. The “Radical Right” — as Frank Church called it — was deftly manipulating the public’s dread of communism to justify putting in place increasingly harsh and “totalitarian methods.” As a champion of civil rights legislation, Church frequently faced the ire of citizens who were concerned he was undeservedly bestowing rights on minorities and people of color. In a letter to an incensed constituent in 1963, Church wrote the following: “If we truly love our great nation and all that it stands for, let us turn from the councils of ignorance, bigotry and hate, to councils of reason and decency.”
These are words we ought to think carefully about as we go through yet another paroxysm of violence and hate.
I’ve also thought about what Cecil Andrus would say — another pillar of progressive politics and conservation in Idaho, who passed away Aug. 24. I’m struck by an observation he made in 2012: “We used to be able to work in the middle, but there is no middle anymore.” Though I understand where his assertion is coming from, I refuse to accept that’s the end of the story. It’s imperative that we find a way to restore civil discourse and reclaim the middle.
In my new role I will strive every day to live up to the ideals and values that Frank and Bethine Church espoused. I will confront hateful ideologies and harmful rhetoric. I will publicly call out shameful acts and intolerance. That is the least I can do to honor their legacy and the legacy of this country.
Steven Feldstein served as a deputy assistant secretary in the bureau of democracy, human rights and labor at the State Department from 2014-17.