Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christians, Jews, Influence, and Bigotry

In the course of repeatedly missing the point of the Harold Meyerson column Ahab posted yesterday--a column about the incompatibility between Republican ideology and the religion they're trying to appropriate--commenter Mike Maddox offers this hypothetical:

If a commenter said that the Democratic Party is in bed with the Jews (scare quotes or not) most reasonable people would call that anti-Semitic, if only to point out the threat of conspiracy that it evokes.
Well, yes. But let me offer another hypothetical: if the Democratic Party had a de facto religious test requiring presidential candidates to proclaim their Judaism, reasonable people (that is, the people Mike accuses of hypothetical hypocrisy) would all consider that a Very Bad Thing. (And in Israel, where there are explicitly religious (Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox) parties, as far as I can tell that has been a very bad thing.)

But of course, that's not the case here. The first problem with the comparison is that there is no comparison: most Jews are Democrats, but most Democrats are not Jews, and the notion that Jews 'dominate' the party is purely a fantasy of anti-Semitic conspiracists. Nobody in the Democratic Party is saying this is or should be a 'Jewish nation': nobody is trying to enshrine elements of Jewish doctrine in the party platform (much less succeeding).

(Mike brings up, in a very garbled way (confusing the ADL with the JDL, for example), the Walt/Mearsheimer paper on the influence of 'the Israel lobby'. This, of course, is a very different thing from religious influence: AIPAC and its allies are pushing a particular set of policies, not a religious worldview.)

On the Republican side, meanwhile, Mitt Romney felt compelled to say in his big religion speech that he does believe in Jesus. It's unclear whether the speech helped or hurt Romney, but it sure didn't do much for a secular America.

The second problem with the comparison is that, as the song says, one of these things is not like the other. For many Jews, being 'Jewish' is more a matter of ethnic identity than religious belief. On the Christian side, with certain exceptions, it's all about the doctrine; nobody would identify themselves as 'Christian' who didn't actively believe in certain doctrines of Christianity. (Catholicism is sort of an exception, in that people will identify themselves as, say, 'lapsed Catholics'; even there, though, the former existence of the doctrine is key to the self-identification.) When people talk about 'Jews', they're talking about an ethnic group; when they talk about 'Christians', they're talking about belief. It is vile bigotry to object to political participation by people of a certain ethnicity, but it is not unreasonable to object to the presence of certain beliefs.

One other complicating factor (and a pet peeve of mine) is that 'Christian' means very different things depending on who uses the word. As I use it, the word embraces every denomination that identifies itself as 'Christian'. As authoritarian evangelicals use it, it means authoritarian evangelicals; nobody else is considered 'Christian'. This usage is both presumptuous and dishonest--dishonest because it is far more restrictive than it appears to be, because it hides deep-seated intolerance beneath a mask of brotherhood with a much larger community.

And when someone talks about the influence of 'Christians' in the GOP, they mean 'Christians' in the latter, more restricted sense of the word.

That the GOP's agenda is largely shaped by authoritarian evangelicals (or more precisely, by attempts to pander to authoritarian evangelicals) is obvious to anyone who's paying attention. It isn't bigotry to point this out, Mike; it shouldn't even be controversial.