“While those who act out violently—hate groups or lone wolves—may be few, the sentiments that lead them to believe their actions are acceptable stem from every-day bigotry and an unwillingness to confront it.” So writes Andrea Vogt to reflect the views of the late human rights activist Bill Wassmuth (1941–2002), as well as, one suspects, to warn the rest of us who are now left without his courageous leadership in the Northwest.
In Common Courage: Bill Wassmuth, Human Rights, and Small-Town Activism, Vogt chronicles Wassmuth’s life in the context of a discussion of the respective roles of education, religion, and community in eradicating the every-day bigotry of which she writes. Raised on a farm in Greencreek, Idaho, Wassmuth moved on to a similarly strict, hard-working life as a seminarian at Mt. Angel Abbey near Portland, Oregon. It wasn’t until he entered Seattle University to pursue a master’s degree in religious education that he was exposed to the liberation theology which, with its emphasis on social justice, deepened—and at times contradicted—the institutionalized theology he practiced and preached in parishes in Boise and McCall.
Social justice was at the heart of Wassmuth’s Christian beliefs by the time he became a priest at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. There, throughout the 1980s, he found himself confronted with the misuse of theology for hateful aims by white supremacists settling in northern Idaho. He lived through the bombing of his home and built coalitions to battle the Aryan Nations in award-winning efforts as chair of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations. After leaving Coeur d’Alene and the priesthood, marrying, and settling in Seattle, Wassmuth continued his successful activism as director of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment.
Vogt describes countless occasions Wassmuth was called upon for his opinion and consultation, as when a group at Washington State University caused controversy by inviting a Holocaust revisionist to speak on campus. Wassmuth expressed the view that free speech on a college campus does not include the requirement that others tolerate what is said as acceptable. Instead, he said, others have a responsibility to point out when such speech is hateful and wrong.
In his foreword to Common Courage, Morris Dees, who led the legal team that won a $6.3 million judgment against the Aryan Nations in north Idaho, writes, “You might stamp out the hate group in the community, but it is the systemic bias against Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, or other minorities that is problematic.” Vogt develops this theme in a series of chapters, interspersed among those on Wassmuth’s life, describing the role of education in fighting hate, the influence of religion, the importance of the local community, and the impact of hate groups on the growing demographics of Northwest cities and towns today.
Vogt’s final interviews with Wassmuth in his last year of life and struggle with Lou Gehrig’s disease movingly reveal a man of deep faith and character, as do her descriptions of his unwavering belief in the role of grassroots human rights efforts. Wassmuth once said, “faith communities exist to be a leaven in a larger community.” Vogt demonstrates not only how inextricably linked Bill Wassmuth’s life was with Idaho, but how he acted as leaven in the Northwest’s fight against white supremacy and, for that matter, the fight against hate across the U.S.
— Gail J. Stearns, director, The Common Ministry at WSU, and adjunct faculty member in WSUs Honors College and Department of Womens Studies