(Christian) Religion and (American) Politics (David Brat Eric Cantor)


Funny, they share the same strong features and clean-shaven good looks, and even basic eye-ware. What is there that really distinguishes them? Probably not much. So on one hand, good riddance. On the other hand, it’s a disaster. The recent drubbing of Eric Cantor by David Brat, an economics professor and a master in Christian divinity, shows that no matter how hard one tries to cater to the radical right in the United States, there’s no place for Jews in the Republican Party, certainly not as elected officials in a grand old party dominated by illiberal capitalism and conservative Christian ethics. There’s no way that he was going to be able to play the values card like Brat.

Is it the case then that Cantor lost his seat and leadership in Congress because he’s Jewish? JJ Goldberg thinks so. Goldberg argues that it has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with anti-Semitism, but everything to do with Christianity, and the porous boundary separating church and state in the United States. The same logic applies to and gives a sense as to what’s wrong about the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of Christian prayer at government events (The Town of Greece vs. Galloway). I would put the argument this way. In circles and places in which the country is defined as “Christian” (in places like Virginia, in most places) that American Jews will have a more precarious place, not because they are Jews but because they are not Christians. It’s something that only a small coterie of neo-conservative Jews will welcome, but about which only a few will be honest.

You can read the entire article by Goldberg here in the Forward. I’m highlighting what I think are the main points, including the reference to Irving Kristol, granddaddy of the new Jewish right.

Right now, the main point is that one can be pro-Christian without being anti-Jewish. Practically speaking, Jews feel threatened by a political movement that seeks to put religion — the majority religion, which isn’t ours — at the center of the nation’s public life. It’s exclusionary. It arguably violates the Constitution, which says (Article VI) that there may not be any “religious test” for public office. The Christian right is all about judging candidates for office by their religion — by which they mean the values that the candidates bring to the table. Judging candidates by their values sounds like it ought to be center-stage in politics. But how do you do that without applying a religious test? Christian conservatives say the clause bars legislation that would apply such a test, not the personal views of the voters.

It’s not that they don’t like Jews. I’d bet that 90% of the 36,000 zealots who turned out to vote for David Brat on Tuesday (vs. 29,000 for Cantor) don’t have an anti-Semitic bone in their body. It’s just that they love Jesus. They want more religious values guiding and governing our public life. And by religious values they mean Christian values. That’s David Brat’s main calling card.


No, anti-Semitism isn’t the only reason to bring religion into the discussion. As a matter of fact, what happened in Virginia on Tuesday looks like something that Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of neoconservatism (a title he wore with pride), wrote about in that same Commentary magazine back in an August 1991 essay titled “The Future of American Jewry,” that was irritating at the time but may be turning out to have been prophetic. It’s simply that those who want America to become more Christian will inevitably be creating a society that’s less welcoming and inclusive for Jews. 


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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