YOU’RE SO VAIN, YOU PROBABLY THINK JESUS IS ABOUT YOU

David Brody, blogger for Pat Robertson’s CBN, weighs in on Barack Obama’s legitimacy:

He talks about Jesus and how Christ changed his life. But religious conservatives aren’t convinced at all and think he’s way too liberal to be considered legitimate with his faith talk. I expect the faith discussion about Obama’s Christianity to increase as time goes on. Is he genuine or not? If he is, then he’ll need to figure out a way to defend certain positions (abortion and marriage) that don’t jive with the Bible.

It takes a particular sort of arrogance to take every expression of personal faith by a political candidate as an audition for you and Pat Robertson. And it makes you wonder: How does David Brody know that Barack Obama doesn’t share the biblical position that if a man violently causes a woman to miscarriage, he should be held financially culpable? Nothing there that doesn’t jive with pro-choice doctrine.

This is a good example of why (though contra Rawls, I don’t want to force “public reason” on everyone) we should prefer political appeals to the persuasive power of your religious tradition over political appeals to its authority.

BIGOTS IN ABUNDANCE?

James Traub, in his Times Mag piece on ADL head Abe Foxman, notes that

Foxman upset many of his colleagues by extending a welcome to Christian conservatives, whose leaders tended to be strongly pro-Israel even as they spoke in disturbing terms of America’s “Christian” identity.

True that. Brings to mind the Zionist Organization of America’s decision to honor Pat Robertson with a “State of Israel Fellowship Award.” Abe Foxman at the time demurred that “He’s not deserving, but I have no objections to other groups honoring him.” This despite Robertson having literally written the book on how Jews conspired with Free Masons and Illuminati to engineer the major wars in American history in order to manipulate the global market (Norman Podhoretz argued at the time that that kind of antisemitism was rendered irrelevant by Robertson’s Zionism just as in the Talmud a tiny bit of treif can’t render a huge kosher vat no longer kosher). Robertson went on to raise the ire of the ADL, which had previously highlighted some of his rantings with concern, when he suggested that Ariel Sharon’s strike was punishment from God.

Perhaps the most telling piece of Traub’s article is this exchange:

I asked if it was really right to call Carter, the president who negotiated the Camp David accords, an anti-Semite.

“I didn’t call him an anti-Semite.”

“But you said he was bigoted. Isn’t that the same thing?”

“No. ‘Bigoted’ is you have preconceived notions about things.”

The argument that the Israel lobby constricted debate was itself bigoted, he said.

“But several Jewish officials I’ve talked to say just that.”

“They’re wrong.”

“Are they bigoted?”

Foxman didn’t want to go there. He said that he had never heard any serious person make that claim.

This is the Abe Foxman worldview. Intellectual and/or moral serious equals the belief that the pro-Likud lobbying infrastructure exercises no pressure on the scope of the Israel debate in this country. Concern about the role of that lobby (unlike, say, concern about the role of the NRA) in shaping public perceptions and policy outcomes equals bigotry. And acceptance of Jews equals support for the actions of the current Israeli government.

This despite the ADL’s own research showing antisemitism declining in Europe at the same time that “anti-Israel” sentiment rises. As my friend Jacob Remes wrote at the time,

Abe Foxman, while hailing European governments that have worked to differentiate Israel from Jews, fails to do so himself and continues to equate the two.

BIBLICALLY INCORRECT

Democracy for America just e-mailed to announce an on-line petition against Pat Robertson’s fatwa on Hugo Chavez reminding the pastor of the biblical commandment that “Thou shalt not kill.” I’d be all for spreading a little gospel to the everyone’s favorite venal, hateful, antisemitic (didn’t stop the ADL giving him an award for supporting the Israeli occupation) pastor, except for one problem: There is no biblical commandment that says “Thou shalt not kill.” There is a biblical commandment saying lo tirtzach. But that doesn’t mean “Do not kill” (not reason to dress it up in Old English). It means “Do not murder.” The Torah has lots of words for killing itself, but they don’t show up in the Ten Commandments – they show up at the various points where God affirmatively commands Israelites to kill particular people or peoples.

That’s not to say that opposition to violence itself doesn’t have support in Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s just to say that opposition to killing people across the board has no more grounding in the literal meaning (or p’shat) of the Torah than, say, opposition to aborting fetuses. What the Torah is clearly against is murder – killing unjustly. And the plentiful body of (inter alia) Jewish commentary on what counts as wrongful killing provides plentiful arguments for serious discretion in the use of lethal force. One cluster of examples would be the set of restrictions on the application of the death penalty which rendered it virtually impossible for human beings to carry it out (rules like the traditional prohibition on executing anyone based on a unanimous verdict, because a unanimous verdict suggests that the jury didn’t struggle with the issue hard enough). Needless to say, there are no lack of compelling religious arguments for why murdering a democratically-elected foreign leader in cold blood is something other than a good idea.

Tuesday night several groups at Yale sponsored an excellent debate between the Reverends Barry Lynn (of Americans United for Separation of Church and State) and Jim Wallis (of Sojourners Magazine) on the role of faith in public life. They’re both thoughtful and articulate speakers with a stake in a more progressive turn for this country.

Wallis is frustratingly off-base in his support for President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives as an opportunity to be seized by a religious left. The issue, as I’ve said before and as Lynn argued, is not whether religiously-identified groups are eligible for government support when they provide social services but whether they will be subject to the same regulations as everyone else when they are. Lynn quoted troubling comments from Wallis conflating denying funding to groups because they hold a certain faith with denying funding to those groups because they discriminate in hiring against those who don’t. And Lynn rightfully questioned Wallis’ attempt in writing to dichotomize racial and religious discrimination, pointing out that for some of the groups in question one identitiy is mapped onto the other – and that right-wing churches led by the likes of Pat Robertson haven’t been rejected for “preaching hate” like the Nation of Islam has. Wallis, to his credit, expressed unspecified concerns with the implementation of the initiatives, but declined the engage the issue of discrimination and instead expressed hope that the Supreme Court would sort it out.

My sympathies were more divided between the Reverends on the other issue which consumed much of the debate: What is the place of religious rhetoric in political discourse? I share Rev. Lynn’s concern that the halls of Congress not be overtaken with arguments over the details of scriptural interpretation. He’s right to argue that in a pluralistic, democratic society votes should be cast, and should be explained, based on popular rather than divine authority, and on the basis of shared rather than sectarian values. He’s right to observe that while religious rhetoric infused the Civil Rights Movement through and through, when members of Congress cast their votes in 1964, they explained them through appeal in large part to the values of equal protection set forth in our common law. And he’s right to reject Wallis’ tenedency to reduce “values” to religion and to reduce the political spectrum to religious right versus religious left.

That said, I think few of us disagree with Rev. Wallis’ contention that it’s long past time that the religious left disrupted what he calls the monologue of the religious right. And I’m not persuaded by the bright lines Lynn seeks to draw between the discourse in the halls of Congress, in the church, on opinion pages, at rallies, and on Meet the Press. Certainly, an advocate assumes a different voice than a representative, speaking on different grounds and to a different audience. But Wallis is right that there should be a place for our elected representatives to speak to their personal faith convictions as well as to our shared democratic ideals. He’s right that for Lynn to bristle categorically at any instance of biblical references by elected politicians does little to further the cause of religious freedom.

One audience member asked Rev. Lynn why he was comfortable with Senators quoting from “anything else in Bartlett’s Quotations,” but not the Bible, and in response Lynn made an illuminating distinction between a quote to persuade – invoked because the quote itself makes a persuasive argument for whatever is being advocated – and a quote on the basis of authority, which is invoked to bring down the authority of whoever said the quote in the first place as an argument in and of itself for what’s being advocated. Lynn’s belief is that Bible quotes are always brought in not to share creative persuasive arguments but to shut down argument by virtue of biblical authority. I’m not so sure. It may be complicated to distinguish between appeals to a biblical argument and invocation of biblical authority, but I think it’s critical that we do. I think it’s similarly critical that we distinguish between those who invoke their particularistic faith values as ends unto themselves, and those who offer them as a personal path to our shared faith in community, in individual freedom, and in social justice.

Gregg Easterbrook’s recently found himself at the center of a controversy around charges that comments he made on his site about movie violence and Jewish studio executives demonstrated antisemitism. As I made clear in an exchange with Josh Cherniss this summer, I tend as a Jew to try to cultivate a healthy
skepticism of that charge – it’s an ugly one, those who deploy it too easily risk both defaming those who don’t deserve it and lessening the weight of the charge against deserved targets. This looks to me pretty clearly like a case of choosing words poorly and missing the implications they held for someone else reading them. But what struck me in this case is not the unfairness of the charge, but one particular and problematic line used in defense:

From Josh Chafetz:
GREGG EASTERBROOK IS MOST EMPHATICALLY NOT AN ANTI-SEMITE. It would be impossible to work at TNR and be anti-semitic…

From Andrew Sullivan:

He has worked for many years at The New Republic, testimony in itself that he is hardly anything even close to anti-Semitic.

I’m not sure which problematic argument is being advanced here:
That someone who works for an “enlightened,” respectable publication could not be antisemitic?
That someone who works with many Jewish coworkers could not be antisemitic?
That someone who works for a magazine that staunchly supported the war in Iraq could not be antisemitic?

Lemme know what I’m missing. Otherwise, it seems to me that Sullivan and Chafetz reached the right conclusion for awful reasons. This brings me back to Norman Podheretz’ execrable argument that under the Talmudic principle of bitul b’shishim, Pat Robertson’s advancement of the theory that Jews had collaborated with free masons and Illuminati to cause every war in American history by controlling the international monetary system could be excused because of his support for the Israeli Government – and the ADL‘s decision to give Robertson an award. I have no reason to believe that Pat Robertson couldn’t have gotten himself a gig with the New Republic in his heyday if he really wanted one – or that if he did, he would become any less prejudiced.

The Times is now reporting that Charles Taylor has finally stepped down.

In his farewell speech broadcast nationally Sunday, Taylor said he was a “sacrificial lamb” stepping down to spare his people more bloodshed.

Sacrificial lamb? Given that he’s a brutal war crimminal conveyed off to comfortable asylum in Nigeria, those aren’t the first words to come to mind. If Pat Robertson gives him his own show on the 700 club, will that make him feel better?

Meanwhile, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf offers some historical perspective by looking back to Samuel Doe’s seizure of the country in 1985:

That was 1985. Sadly, the military stuffed ballot boxes and burned ballots, and Samuel Doe, a sergeant who had seized power in a 1980 coup, declared himself the winner. Liberians’ hopes were dashed by American recognition of the results. It is hard to imagine that Chester Crocker, the Reagan administration’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs, was not being deeply ironic when he praised Doe at the time for claiming only 51 percent of the vote. It was, he said, “unheard of in the rest of Africa, where incumbent rulers normally claim victories of 95 to 100 percent.”