The Hindu tradition, in which I was raised, taught me, from a very early age, that words have power and are consequential. From my grandparents and parents, I heard, again and again, the story of Rama, the prince who went into a homeless exile for fourteen years for the sake of his father's promised word. Dasaratha, Rama's father, announced his intention to retire and to appoint Rama, his eldest son, as his successor. Dasaratha, however, forgot his earlier promise to one of his wives, Kaikeyi, to fulfill any two of her promises. Kaikeyi chose the night before Rama's coronation to remind the king of his word and to express her wishes. She demanded the throne for her son, Bharata, and the banishment of Rama into the forests for fourteen years.
When the news was conveyed to Rama, he struggled to maintain his self-composure. One writer described him as "pale of mein, bathed in perspiration and agitated." He did not, however, try to spin or explain away his father's words. His father had spoken words of promise and his father's and his family's moral authority depended on the fulfillment of his words. Disregarding his father's words would set a poor public precedent and example. I memorized the famous words of the Ramayana that "one's promised word must be redeemed, even at the cost of one's life."
During the recent election campaign, and since, I have thought often of the story of Rama and the significance of the word. Unrealistic promises, made in the heat of a campaign, are not the preserve of any candidate. Campaigns seem to give a license for shouting unrealistic goals to applauding supporters, with no thought of consequences.
In the recent elections, however, the problem of words went beyond the typical election promises. Mr. Trump hurled words as angry weapons that denigrated and reduced women to sexual objects, stereotyped minorities and religious communities and mocked the disabled. He spoke words that were unapologetically racist. On each occasion, Trump apologists eagerly offered some of the most elastic interpretations of the spoken word to tell us what he "really meant." He seemed to speak a language that only his inner circles had the gifts of insight to interpret and translate. His meaning was always different from what those of us outside the circle heard.
Since Mr. Trump's election, there has been a discernible shift in the defense strategy for his violent words. Incredulous hermeneutical maneuvers have given way to the insistence that we should ignore his words and look now to his actions. The same argument is being offered in defense of Mr. Stephen Bannon, whose Brietbart News site peddled sexist, Islamophobic and homophobic material.
But, let us consider the assumptions of the argument that we must look beyond Mr. Trump's words and to his actions. There are at least two possibilities. First, that the evening of November 8th, 2016, saw not just an electoral victory for Mr. Trump, but also a sudden and dramatic moral awakening. Besides the fact that Mr. Trump has made no such claim, the transformation of character and habit is an arduous intentional process that does not occur overnight. The gain of power, especially for someone who seems egotistically obsessed with it, is not known to be a catalyst for moral conversion. Second, perhaps Mr. Trump's sexist, racist, Islamophobic and xenophobic words do not reflect a moral deficit, but are strategic choices made to secure victory. Many of his supporters are, in fact, asking us not to judge him by his campaign rhetoric, claiming that it is just that-campaign rhetoric. But what manner of man would demean and trivialize women, make racist comments about a member of the judiciary, and despise minorities in order to secure power? Mr. Trump's words have inflicted deep pain, stirred fear and hate and deeply divided communities. We are already seeing the evidence in actions of abuse and violence across our nation. If Mr. Trump's campaign words are just strategic, then we have witnessed one of the most unethical and immoral campaigns in recent history. The wounds of this campaign will be long in healing.
Although white evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Mr. Trump, I know of no major religious tradition that will endorse Mr. Trump's verbal violence and his dehumanizing language.
I started this reflection with a narrative from the Hindu tradition, because the world's religions are among the dwindling sources of teachings that remind us of the power of words to hurt and to heal. They revere words as vehicles of truth. Such teachings come with a profound obligation. If our religious leaders do not speak against this abuse of language and the reckless and cynical manipulation of words for the attainment of power, the deep wounds inflicted by Mr. Trump may prove fatal.