Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 23, 2012

American Jewry’s Waning Exceptionalism

An interesting article published yesterday in The Forward by Robert Zaretsky on the rightward political tilt of French Jewry highlights well the increasingly unique character of Jewish politics in the United States. If present trends continue, though, in another generation or so American Jews may finally become more similar to their cousins around the world.

In the article, Zaretsky quotes Jerome Fourquet, a French pollster, who cites 40 percent Jewish support for right-leaning and extremely unpopular French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which he says amounts to a “pronounced preference” for the political right. As Zaretsky also notes, the right-wing support is far from “monolithic” and falls well short of the oft-cited 78 percent of American Jews who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. In truth, French Jews, though they may now tilt a bit more to the right, seem much more open-minded politically than American Jews, for whom it was big news when Pew discovered recently that only 65 percent identify with the Democratic Party.

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An interesting article published yesterday in The Forward by Robert Zaretsky on the rightward political tilt of French Jewry highlights well the increasingly unique character of Jewish politics in the United States. If present trends continue, though, in another generation or so American Jews may finally become more similar to their cousins around the world.

In the article, Zaretsky quotes Jerome Fourquet, a French pollster, who cites 40 percent Jewish support for right-leaning and extremely unpopular French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which he says amounts to a “pronounced preference” for the political right. As Zaretsky also notes, the right-wing support is far from “monolithic” and falls well short of the oft-cited 78 percent of American Jews who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. In truth, French Jews, though they may now tilt a bit more to the right, seem much more open-minded politically than American Jews, for whom it was big news when Pew discovered recently that only 65 percent identify with the Democratic Party.

If you try to figure out what makes French Jews different, the answer seems to be similar to those generally given for the rightward tilt of Israeli politics. Similar to their proportion in the Jewish state, roughly half of France’s Jews come most immediately from majority Arab regions like North Africa. As in Israel, these Jews seem both more willing to consider the breadth of their political options and to be concerned about Muslim and Arab intentions towards Jews than their Ashkenazi counterparts. So as their political enfranchisement has risen, so have Jewish politics become more balanced.

Far from outliers of course, Israel and France represent the largest and third largest Jewish populations in the world.

American Jews might also be different in that, accustomed as they have become to robust bipartisan support for the Jewish state, they largely don’t feel the issue of Israel is fundamentally at stake in this country. Whatever discomfort they may feel with the policies of a particular administration, here, as opposed to abroad, they may feel certain – rightly or wrongly –  there are certain lines that simply won’t be crossed.

There are other ways American Jews stand out. Few Jewish communities abroad have non-Orthodox religious establishments of any numerical significance. Most have also – like Israel – long-adopted voluntary and stringent security measures that still would look out of place in most American Jewish establishments.

Perhaps the one thing that most accounts for American Jewish exceptionalism is the preponderance of Jews of Ashkenazi heritage, who are probably a larger percentage of the population and continue to hold a largely unchallenged sway over internal and external Jewish politics here to a greater extent than just about anywhere else.

Some changes, though, are afoot. Already in 2001 (the last year that a significant Jewish population study was undertaken), Orthodox Jews made up a steadily increasing 15 percent of the population aged 18-24, with a clear rise also for those who see themselves as “just Jewish” and declining proportions for Reform and Conservative Jews. An American Jewry that is both more Orthodox and more unaffiliated would be more in line with global Jewish norms.

As it has elsewhere, demographics may continue to wage its own irresistible changes. In many ways though many American Jews probably already find themselves outside the global Jewish consensus looking in. If American Jewry ultimately becomes more elastic in its political preferences, it will likely find not only its relations with Jews abroad easier, but the political system at home may become even more responsive to its concerns.

 

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Being a “Team Player” is No Dishonor

Rick Santorum’s defense of his vote in favor of President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education bill was one of the low points of a dismal debate performance last night. His explanation that being a “team player” meant that sometimes you have to “take one for the team” was not exactly the sort of ringing defense of principle that wins applause from partisan crowds. In fact, it earned him some boos and allowed Mitt Romney and Ron Paul to brand him as a political “insider” who is part of the problem in Washington rather than its solution.

To the extent that the bill was symbolic of the willingness of the Bush administration and the Republican majority in Congress in 2002 to spend the public’s money like drunken sailors or at least like Democrats, it is fair game for criticism of Santorum. However, the impulse to trash any rationale put forward for team play in Congress is more than a bit overblown. More to the point, the idea that any member of the House or Senate should be condemned for attempting to govern rather than merely spouting off purist declarations of principle in the manner of Ron Paul is not only unfair, it is a prescription for chaos. It should also be noted that Santorum’s regret about “No Child Behind” is no ex-post facto rationale. I happen to know his support for the bill was in fact quite reluctant.

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Rick Santorum’s defense of his vote in favor of President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education bill was one of the low points of a dismal debate performance last night. His explanation that being a “team player” meant that sometimes you have to “take one for the team” was not exactly the sort of ringing defense of principle that wins applause from partisan crowds. In fact, it earned him some boos and allowed Mitt Romney and Ron Paul to brand him as a political “insider” who is part of the problem in Washington rather than its solution.

To the extent that the bill was symbolic of the willingness of the Bush administration and the Republican majority in Congress in 2002 to spend the public’s money like drunken sailors or at least like Democrats, it is fair game for criticism of Santorum. However, the impulse to trash any rationale put forward for team play in Congress is more than a bit overblown. More to the point, the idea that any member of the House or Senate should be condemned for attempting to govern rather than merely spouting off purist declarations of principle in the manner of Ron Paul is not only unfair, it is a prescription for chaos. It should also be noted that Santorum’s regret about “No Child Behind” is no ex-post facto rationale. I happen to know his support for the bill was in fact quite reluctant.

In 2001, just after the bill’s passage, I spoke with Santorum when he was in my office for a meeting with the editors of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia where I served as executive editor. I pressed him about “No Child Behind,” and his response was he had grave misgivings about the bill and would not have voted for it but for the importance the president placed upon its passage. He explained then as he did last night that being part of the Senate leadership imposed obligations on him that meant he could not always vote as he pleased. As lame as his defense of that decision may have seemed last night, there is no doubt about the honesty of his position.

To understand the vote is not necessarily to excuse it. But to treat his decision to honor his obligation to his party and his president as being a dishonest or even dishonorable act is to misunderstand the nature of politics in a democracy. For something to be accomplished in any legislature, someone needs to compromise–at least some of the time. And in order for a majority to function, its leaders must, as a matter of course, pull together or cause the entire enterprise to collapse. When a matter of conscience arises, legislators must oppose their party and accept the consequences, which means resignation from a leadership role. One can argue that Santorum should have done so over “No Child Left Behind.” But had he done so, that would have meant he would have lost the ability to influence the Senate on many other issues that were just as, if not more important, to him. Even the most principled of politicians cannot be expected to fall on their swords about every issue.

What the storm over Santorum’s “team player” remark reveals is not just the hypocrisy on this issue of men like Mitt Romney, who have in other contexts been quintessential “go along to get along” types of politicians. It is the way anger at Washington has discredited the entire concept of members of the House and Senate acting in concert with each other. Although one could disagree with Rick Santorum’s senatorial decisions, it is unfair to treat his obligations as a senator as a black mark against his record.

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We Can’t Watch Syria From the Sidelines

The situation in Syria continues to get grimmer and grimmer as the bloody assault on Homs continues for a 20th straight day. A panel of three UN investigators has accused the Bashar al-Assad regime of crimes against humanity. News reports from Homs, including some by journalists who have died in the process of getting the news out, amply attest to the truth of these charges. Civilian neighborhoods are being shelled without mercy, and the victims have no way to get medical care.

It is difficult to see why the U.S., Britain, France and other nations–which acted last year when Muammar Qaddafi threatened to inflict a similar fate on Benghazi–sit on the sidelines today. The lack of a UN Security Council resolution, blocked by Bashar Assad’s friends in Moscow and Beijing, should hardly prevent the civilized nations of the world from acting as they did in Kosovo. No one suggests sending Western ground troops, but there is much that can still be done, ranging from air strikes to the establishment of safe zones policed by the Turkish army and the provision of arms to the Free Syrian Army, as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have been arguing for.

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The situation in Syria continues to get grimmer and grimmer as the bloody assault on Homs continues for a 20th straight day. A panel of three UN investigators has accused the Bashar al-Assad regime of crimes against humanity. News reports from Homs, including some by journalists who have died in the process of getting the news out, amply attest to the truth of these charges. Civilian neighborhoods are being shelled without mercy, and the victims have no way to get medical care.

It is difficult to see why the U.S., Britain, France and other nations–which acted last year when Muammar Qaddafi threatened to inflict a similar fate on Benghazi–sit on the sidelines today. The lack of a UN Security Council resolution, blocked by Bashar Assad’s friends in Moscow and Beijing, should hardly prevent the civilized nations of the world from acting as they did in Kosovo. No one suggests sending Western ground troops, but there is much that can still be done, ranging from air strikes to the establishment of safe zones policed by the Turkish army and the provision of arms to the Free Syrian Army, as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have been arguing for.

Even if there is no will for any robust intervention, there are small steps that can be made. For instance, in the New York Times today we read of the difficulty of getting the news out about Assad’s murderous assault on Homs, where reporters are banned, electricity is out and few if any Internet connections are available. The Times reports that a private group called the Activists News Association in Cairo and other non-governmental organizations are “helping Syria’s volunteer journalists get the word out, organizing their video postings, compiling videos of the dead and spreading that information by Twitter and Facebook.” This is important work, and if the U.S. government isn’t helping to provide information technology to Syria’s anti-government activists, it should be. That is a bare and inadequate minimum of what we should be doing.

 

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Contraception vs. Infanticide

Last night’s debate was not among the best we’ve seen, but there was one particularly memorable moment. It came to us courtesy of Newt Gingrich.

When the candidates were asked (from a pre-selected e-mail) about their views on contraception, Gingrich responded by saying, “I want to make two quick points, John [King]. The first is: There is a legitimate question about the power of the government to impose on religion activities which any religion opposes. That’s legitimate. But I just want to point out — not once in the 2008 campaign, not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide.”

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Last night’s debate was not among the best we’ve seen, but there was one particularly memorable moment. It came to us courtesy of Newt Gingrich.

When the candidates were asked (from a pre-selected e-mail) about their views on contraception, Gingrich responded by saying, “I want to make two quick points, John [King]. The first is: There is a legitimate question about the power of the government to impose on religion activities which any religion opposes. That’s legitimate. But I just want to point out — not once in the 2008 campaign, not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide.”

What Gingrich is referring to is that Barack Obama, as an Illinois state senator, opposed the Born Alive Infant Protection Act. (For more, see this October 16, 2008 article, “Obama and Infanticide,” by Robert P. George and Yuval Levin.) The evidence clearly points to the fact that Obama, in the name of abortion rights, would not support laws against infanticide. It is a stand that remains even today both sickening and almost impossible to comprehend. And yet the entire universe of political reporters showed an amazing lack of curiosity (and certainly not an ounce of consternation or outrage) on this topic.

It’s so hard to imagine why.

The simple-minded among us might assume that many journalists, leaning very much to the left on social issues, are more offended when candidates express personal objections to contraception than when candidates oppose laws against infanticide. Those of us who are unsophisticated on these matters might even come to the conclusion that for reasons of ideology, many members of the press hyper-focus on contraception and completely ignore infanticide, an act one might think qualifies as morally problematic.

 

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Rubio and Media Double Standards

BuzzFeed wins the prize for one of the most unexpected political revelations of the campaign season:

[Sen. Marco] Rubio was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with his family at around the age of eight, and remained active in the faith for a number of years during his early youth, family members told BuzzFeed.

Rubio spokesman Alex Conant confirmed the story to BuzzFeed, and said Rubio returned to the Catholic church a few years later with his family, receiving his first communion on Christmas day in 1984 at the age of 13.

The revelation adds a new dimension to Rubio’s already-nuanced religious history—and could complicate his political future at a time when many Republicans see him as the odds-on favorite for the 2012 vice presidential nod.

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BuzzFeed wins the prize for one of the most unexpected political revelations of the campaign season:

[Sen. Marco] Rubio was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with his family at around the age of eight, and remained active in the faith for a number of years during his early youth, family members told BuzzFeed.

Rubio spokesman Alex Conant confirmed the story to BuzzFeed, and said Rubio returned to the Catholic church a few years later with his family, receiving his first communion on Christmas day in 1984 at the age of 13.

The revelation adds a new dimension to Rubio’s already-nuanced religious history—and could complicate his political future at a time when many Republicans see him as the odds-on favorite for the 2012 vice presidential nod.

BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins speculates that Rubio’s religious history might knock him off Romney’s VP short list. As much as the bias against Mormons persists in some Republican circles, it’s hard to imagine spending a few years as a Mormon as a child would hurt his chances of getting the vice presidential nomination.

Though, oddly enough, Rubio’s office seems to be worried it might. It looks like they were concerned enough to preemptively pass the story to a friendly Miami Herald blogger, shortly after BuzzFeed contacted them for comment:

A sign that Rubio’s aides see the story as potentially damaging: BuzzFeed’s inquiries appear to have sent them into frantic damage-control mode, and after email inquiries from BuzzFeed — but minutes before Conant responded with a phone call this morning — a brief item appeared on the blog of the Miami Herald mentioning the senator’s religous past. Conant said Rubio planned to discuss his time as a Mormon in his forthcoming book.

Meanwhile, at HotAir, Tina Korbe sees a glaring double-standard in the Rubio story:

Meanwhile, the story calls to mind what the Media Research Center discovered some time ago: The media covers the religious views of Republican politicians in far greater detail than it ever covers the religious views of Democratic politicians. Then, after playing up those religious beliefs, the MSM accuses the Republican candidates themselves of making everything about religion.

Case in point: Obama’s childhood and adolescence received little coverage during the 2008 election, but apparently the brief childhood religion of Rubio is fair game today. Not only is it an example of how Republicans often receive more scrutiny, it also shows that prejudice against Mormons is still prevalent enough to actually make this an issue.

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Romney’s Ability to Knock Rivals Off Stride

I concur with Jonathan’s analysis of last night’s debate. Newt Gingrich won based on the quality of the performance. Mitt Romney emerged from the evening in the strongest shape. And Rick Santorum did significant damage to his hopes of winning the GOP nomination. If Santorum was going to choose a night to have an off-debate, he chose the wrong one.

It’s worth pointing out, perhaps, that Governor Romney, whatever limitations he has as a candidate, possesses some impressive strengths. One of them is the ability to knock his chief rivals off stride, to make them react in ways that come across as thin-skinned and surly.

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I concur with Jonathan’s analysis of last night’s debate. Newt Gingrich won based on the quality of the performance. Mitt Romney emerged from the evening in the strongest shape. And Rick Santorum did significant damage to his hopes of winning the GOP nomination. If Santorum was going to choose a night to have an off-debate, he chose the wrong one.

It’s worth pointing out, perhaps, that Governor Romney, whatever limitations he has as a candidate, possesses some impressive strengths. One of them is the ability to knock his chief rivals off stride, to make them react in ways that come across as thin-skinned and surly.

A case in point: The Washington Examiner’s Byron York reports this:

Rick Santorum suspects something is up between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. Santorum had a tough night at the 20th, and likely last, Republican debate, held here at the Mesa Arts Center. He took a lot of attacks from Romney and a few from Paul, and he noticed that Paul and Romney didn’t seem to go after each other. When it was all over, and Santorum met reporters, he didn’t try to hide what he was thinking.

“You have to ask Congressman Paul and Gov. Romney what they’ve got going together,” Santorum said. “Their commercials look a lot alike, and so do their attacks.”

“They’ve got something going on?” a reporter asked Santorum.

“You tell me,” Santorum said.

That’s an unfortunate thing for Santorum to say. The reason he did poorly was that fairly or not, Romney in particular nailed him to the “Washington Insider” mast, forcing Santorum to explain his votes on earmarks, Title X, No Child Left Behind, and his support for Arlen Specter. By the time the debate was done, Santorum came across as a typical rather than as a conviction politician. The post-debate hints of Romney-Paul coordination and conspiracy aren’t terribly credible — and even if they were, (a) it wouldn’t be inappropriate and (b) Santorum shouldn’t be the person dropping the hints.

We saw a slightly different version of this happen with Newt Gingrich, who was also pinned to the mat by Romney in a key couple of debates.

If the former Massachusetts governor is the Republican nominee, the ability to frustrate an opponent to the point that they slip up and begin to whine may well come in handy against President Obama in the fall, as Obama is unusually arrogant and thin skinned. If Mitt Romney can do to him what he’s succeeded in doing to Gingrich and Santorum, it can only help his chances of becoming our next president.

 

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Obama Needs to Take the Offensive on Koran Burning

President Obama is absolutely correct to apologize for the apparent Koran burning at the Bagram Air Base. (See Alana’s earlier post. ) The incident should not have happened. His apology shows goodwill which Afghans appear to accept. After all, in Kabul–a city of five million people–only 1,000 protesters took to the streets. That’s hardly respectable even for a rent-a-mob.

Still, Obama’s apology fumbles the opportunity to go on the offense. Incidents in which Americans desecrate the Koran–or any holy book–are few and far between and are punished. But, not so the Taliban. Every time the Taliban bomb a mosque–something they do with frequency when they disagree with those mosque’s traditional, moderate mullahs–they desecrate the Koran. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is two-faced in his refusal to hold the Taliban to account for their actions. Why Obama refuses to engage adeptly in the battle to win hearts and minds is a question which still stumps.

President Obama is absolutely correct to apologize for the apparent Koran burning at the Bagram Air Base. (See Alana’s earlier post. ) The incident should not have happened. His apology shows goodwill which Afghans appear to accept. After all, in Kabul–a city of five million people–only 1,000 protesters took to the streets. That’s hardly respectable even for a rent-a-mob.

Still, Obama’s apology fumbles the opportunity to go on the offense. Incidents in which Americans desecrate the Koran–or any holy book–are few and far between and are punished. But, not so the Taliban. Every time the Taliban bomb a mosque–something they do with frequency when they disagree with those mosque’s traditional, moderate mullahs–they desecrate the Koran. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is two-faced in his refusal to hold the Taliban to account for their actions. Why Obama refuses to engage adeptly in the battle to win hearts and minds is a question which still stumps.

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The Debate Show Was Good for Democracy

Last night’s Republican dustup in Mesa, Arizona, was the 20th such event since last spring when the GOP presidential race was unofficially kicked off with a debate in South Carolina. But the 20th edition of what for a time seemed to be America’s favorite political reality show may well be the last of the series. A previously scheduled debate in Georgia has been cancelled due to lack of interest from most of the candidates, and another set to run on PBS from Portland, Oregon, in April is likely to meet the same fate. Because the ratings were down for last night’s affair when compared to previous debates, it’s likely the public has grown as tired of the genre as the contenders.

The GOP debates have come in for a great deal of criticism for the formats, lame questions, the mostly ineffective and foolish moderators, as well as the low level of discourse from most of the participants. All of this is true. Yet if, as some anticipate, the parties will limit the number of similar encounters during the next presidential election in 2016, then that would be a mistake. As much as they have infuriated and bored us at times, the debate show has served an important purpose. Though some are distrustful of the disproportionate impact they had on the process, it is through these sometimes interminable and not particularly inspiring episodes that we have gotten to know the candidates in a way that would not have been possible had there been fewer or no debates at all.

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Last night’s Republican dustup in Mesa, Arizona, was the 20th such event since last spring when the GOP presidential race was unofficially kicked off with a debate in South Carolina. But the 20th edition of what for a time seemed to be America’s favorite political reality show may well be the last of the series. A previously scheduled debate in Georgia has been cancelled due to lack of interest from most of the candidates, and another set to run on PBS from Portland, Oregon, in April is likely to meet the same fate. Because the ratings were down for last night’s affair when compared to previous debates, it’s likely the public has grown as tired of the genre as the contenders.

The GOP debates have come in for a great deal of criticism for the formats, lame questions, the mostly ineffective and foolish moderators, as well as the low level of discourse from most of the participants. All of this is true. Yet if, as some anticipate, the parties will limit the number of similar encounters during the next presidential election in 2016, then that would be a mistake. As much as they have infuriated and bored us at times, the debate show has served an important purpose. Though some are distrustful of the disproportionate impact they had on the process, it is through these sometimes interminable and not particularly inspiring episodes that we have gotten to know the candidates in a way that would not have been possible had there been fewer or no debates at all.

How else would we have known Tim Pawlenty was incapable of telling Mitt Romney to his face that his health care bill was the inspiration for Obamacare, had not the former Minnesota governor choked on the phrase “Obamaneycare” when offered the chance to say it in a debate?

Would we have caught on to Rick Perry’s superficial grasp of the issues and his inability to articulate his vision without being able to see his various “oops” moments? The same goes for Herman Cain and his simplistic tax plan that he never could explain to anyone’s satisfaction.

Without the debates, how would we have learned about Michele Bachmann’s penchant for foolish exaggerations such as her claims about Perry’s Texas inoculation program?

The ebb and flow between the final four during the last few months has also been instructive. The debates gave us the best illustration of Romney’s single-minded zeal to batter his opponents no matter how hypocritical his stances on the issues might be. They’ve also shown us the best and worst of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum as well as providing the nation with more than enough proof Ron Paul is not the sort of person who ought to be trusted with nuclear weapons.

If it has not always been riveting and was sometimes repetitive, nonetheless, the series gave us a window into the minds of every candidate who stepped on the stage even if the questions they were asked were often foolish or off the point. If, as became apparent early on, the public’s view of the candidates was largely shaped by the debates, this was all to the good, because it was based not on campaign propaganda or spin but a real-time evaluation of their performances in a highly stressful environment.

The debates could have been spaced out a bit more, but their cumulative impact served to increase public accountability. That’s exactly what our democracy needs more of. Let’s hope that in 2016 we get more of the same on both sides of the aisle.

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Romney Pounces on Santorum’s “Team Player” Blunder

Rick Santorum has made some foolish remarks recently, but until last night none of them really undermined his Tea Party credibility. His “taking one for the team” comment at the debate is finally giving Mitt Romney an attack line that will resonate with the conservative base:

“When you’re part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team for the leader, and I made a mistake,” Santorum said in what was dubbed by most analysts as the gaffe of the night. “You know, politics is a team sport, folks. Sometimes you’ve got to rally together and do something.”

Romney immediately seized on those remarks during his first campaign stop on Thursday.

“I wonder which team he was taking it for,” Romney said, addressing a conference of the Associated Builders and Contractors. “My team is the American people not the insiders in Washington.”

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Rick Santorum has made some foolish remarks recently, but until last night none of them really undermined his Tea Party credibility. His “taking one for the team” comment at the debate is finally giving Mitt Romney an attack line that will resonate with the conservative base:

“When you’re part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team for the leader, and I made a mistake,” Santorum said in what was dubbed by most analysts as the gaffe of the night. “You know, politics is a team sport, folks. Sometimes you’ve got to rally together and do something.”

Romney immediately seized on those remarks during his first campaign stop on Thursday.

“I wonder which team he was taking it for,” Romney said, addressing a conference of the Associated Builders and Contractors. “My team is the American people not the insiders in Washington.”

Santorum’s comment revealed a candidate who is still getting used to his frontrunner position, and who’s still unseasoned when it comes to defending his own weaknesses. At this point, he seems unprepared to face President Obama, and because last night’s debate may be the last, he may not have time for improvement.

Then there’s the damage Santorum may have done to his image with Tea Party voters. Phil Klein notes that Santorum’s comment was revealing:

This gets at the heart of the problem with Santorum, which I wrote about the day he announced he was running for president — he was the quintessential Bush era Republican. As the number three Republican in the Senate, he was a loyal soldier and went along with Bush’s big government policies, from NCLB to the Medicare prescription drug law. The very problem with the Bush era was precisely that too many Republicans decided to be team players rather than push back against the president when he was violating conservative principles. It’s this very “team player” mentality that the Tea Party movement, in part, was created to combat. Santorum spent the early part of his debate touting his opposition to the Wall Street bailout, but his argument tonight about taking one for the team leaves little doubt that he would have voted for the bailout had he still been in the Senate in 2008.

Santorum handed Romney a bludgeon last night. The question now is whether it’ll be enough to make a difference in Michigan between now and next Tuesday’s primary.

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Why No One Reads Contemporary Fiction

Roger Kimball is the latest to admit he doesn’t read a lot of contemporary fiction and to speculate why. Short version: there’s no common culture. Or in a few more sentences:

We lack the requisite community of readers, and the ambient shared cultural assumptions, to provide what we might call the responsorial friction that underwrites the traction of publicly acknowledged significance. The novel in its highest forms requires a certain level of cultural definiteness and identity against which it can perform its magic. The diffusion or dispersion of culture brings with it a diffusion of manners and erosion of shared moral assumptions. Whatever we think of that process — love it as a sign of social liberation or loathe it as a token of cultural breakdown — it has robbed the novel, and the novel’s audience, of a primary resource: an authoritative tradition to react against.

I complained about something similar just the other day. What E. D. Hirsch Jr. called “cultural literacy” may no longer be possible, not only because the works of the past are no longer considered indispensable to becoming human, but also because no one could possibly agree what the indispensable works are, even if anyone still believed as a general rule that some are.

But this isn’t the whole story. Even if Kimball does not, some people read a lot of contemporary fiction. I know: I’m one. And though I am as eager as the next pundit to bemoan the loss of a common culture, I know that even now there are novels being written that are worth reading. It is true that the publication of a major new novel is no longer a public event, but this truth is entirely beside the question. The question is not whether a new novel passes what my friend Joseph Bottum, also writing in the Weekly Standard, called the “cocktail-party test.” The question is whether a new novel is worth reading.

To answer this question, though, you must read contemporary fiction. If you are troubled by the loss of a common culture, and especially by the novel’s loss of rank within the culture, then you need to start doing the work of restoration. And, sadly, this means that you must sort through a great many lousy novels to find a few good ones — although in this respect the present is no different from any other age in literary history. You must, in short, be prepared to do the work of a critic. The only reason no one reads contemporary fiction is that no one wants to do the work.

Roger Kimball is the latest to admit he doesn’t read a lot of contemporary fiction and to speculate why. Short version: there’s no common culture. Or in a few more sentences:

We lack the requisite community of readers, and the ambient shared cultural assumptions, to provide what we might call the responsorial friction that underwrites the traction of publicly acknowledged significance. The novel in its highest forms requires a certain level of cultural definiteness and identity against which it can perform its magic. The diffusion or dispersion of culture brings with it a diffusion of manners and erosion of shared moral assumptions. Whatever we think of that process — love it as a sign of social liberation or loathe it as a token of cultural breakdown — it has robbed the novel, and the novel’s audience, of a primary resource: an authoritative tradition to react against.

I complained about something similar just the other day. What E. D. Hirsch Jr. called “cultural literacy” may no longer be possible, not only because the works of the past are no longer considered indispensable to becoming human, but also because no one could possibly agree what the indispensable works are, even if anyone still believed as a general rule that some are.

But this isn’t the whole story. Even if Kimball does not, some people read a lot of contemporary fiction. I know: I’m one. And though I am as eager as the next pundit to bemoan the loss of a common culture, I know that even now there are novels being written that are worth reading. It is true that the publication of a major new novel is no longer a public event, but this truth is entirely beside the question. The question is not whether a new novel passes what my friend Joseph Bottum, also writing in the Weekly Standard, called the “cocktail-party test.” The question is whether a new novel is worth reading.

To answer this question, though, you must read contemporary fiction. If you are troubled by the loss of a common culture, and especially by the novel’s loss of rank within the culture, then you need to start doing the work of restoration. And, sadly, this means that you must sort through a great many lousy novels to find a few good ones — although in this respect the present is no different from any other age in literary history. You must, in short, be prepared to do the work of a critic. The only reason no one reads contemporary fiction is that no one wants to do the work.

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Romney Surrogates Less Than Enthusiastic About Romney

Mitt Romney has been having well-documented trouble winning over skeptical conservatives. His electability argument has suffered as other candidates have risen in the polls, including in head-to-head match-ups with President Obama. And while that electability argument has garnered support from GOP officeholders and former candidates, it may be hiding a bigger problem for Romney: He’s having trouble winning over those already on his side.

Two stories today shine a light on Romney surrogates or endorsers whose support for the former Massachusetts governor is lukewarm at best. First, Jon Huntsman appeared on “Morning Joe” today and, as National Journal’s Matt Vasilogambros noticed, suggested support for a third party:

Huntsman, who endorsed Mitt Romney after he dropped out of the presidential race, went on the attack against the Republican Party and the debate process on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” However, he expressly said that he would not run as a third party candidate.

“I’m not a surrogate for anybody,” he said. “All I can say is I’m looking at the political marketplace. And I’m saying this duopoly is tired and we’re stuck in a rut. We’re not having the discussions in this country that we need to have.”

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Mitt Romney has been having well-documented trouble winning over skeptical conservatives. His electability argument has suffered as other candidates have risen in the polls, including in head-to-head match-ups with President Obama. And while that electability argument has garnered support from GOP officeholders and former candidates, it may be hiding a bigger problem for Romney: He’s having trouble winning over those already on his side.

Two stories today shine a light on Romney surrogates or endorsers whose support for the former Massachusetts governor is lukewarm at best. First, Jon Huntsman appeared on “Morning Joe” today and, as National Journal’s Matt Vasilogambros noticed, suggested support for a third party:

Huntsman, who endorsed Mitt Romney after he dropped out of the presidential race, went on the attack against the Republican Party and the debate process on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” However, he expressly said that he would not run as a third party candidate.

“I’m not a surrogate for anybody,” he said. “All I can say is I’m looking at the political marketplace. And I’m saying this duopoly is tired and we’re stuck in a rut. We’re not having the discussions in this country that we need to have.”

Chris Christie also appeared on “Morning Joe,” and offered this defense of Romney’s candidacy:

Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., seems to have learned from Rick Santorum’s mistake in endorsing Mitt Romney in 2008, as Christie explained his support for Romney this year by pointing to the weakness of other Republicans rather than praising the candidate as an ideal conservative.

Christie told Morning Joe that he endorsed Romney “because of the people offering themselves from my party for president of the United States, it was clear to me that he was the best of the group and that he was the only one of the group that I thought gave us a good chance of beating the president.”

Okay then! Meanwhile, Romney seemed to have locked up Jeb Bush’s endorsement, only to have Bush ask the Romney camp politely to stop saying that. I wrote about why Bush would withhold his endorsement last month, and how it might actually have helped Romney realize that he cannot rely on others to get him elected president.

So the morning after a debate that supposedly went well for Romney (or at least didn’t go well for his main rival), Romney’s surrogates went on TV to proclaim that they’re either not actually his surrogate (and in fact that you should probably vote for someone else, in Huntsman’s case) and that Romney is still the right man for the nomination because, well, have you seen the other guys?

Romney may very well have been close to getting Bush’s endorsement, but that ship seems to have sailed. At this point, he needs to keep the support of those who have already endorsed him.

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Obama Trails Romney in Election Matchup

Despite the hand-wringing in Republican circles about the current frontrunners, both Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are still statistically tied with President Obama in a general election matchup, according to a Gallup poll out today. Romney leads Obama, 50 percent to 46 percent, while Obama leads Santorum, 49 percent to 48 percent. Both matchups are within the margin of error.

The poll indicates that the brutal primary battle between Romney and Santorum hasn’t noticeably hurt either candidate with general election voters. In fact, the Romney-Obama matchup numbers have been remarkably stable since August, while Santorum’s have improved considerably. This is despite the fact that Obama’s approval ratings on the economy have been creeping upward recently:

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Despite the hand-wringing in Republican circles about the current frontrunners, both Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are still statistically tied with President Obama in a general election matchup, according to a Gallup poll out today. Romney leads Obama, 50 percent to 46 percent, while Obama leads Santorum, 49 percent to 48 percent. Both matchups are within the margin of error.

The poll indicates that the brutal primary battle between Romney and Santorum hasn’t noticeably hurt either candidate with general election voters. In fact, the Romney-Obama matchup numbers have been remarkably stable since August, while Santorum’s have improved considerably. This is despite the fact that Obama’s approval ratings on the economy have been creeping upward recently:

Looking ahead, four in 10 said they expect the economy to get better in the next year and a third said they think the number of unemployed people in the U.S. will decrease, the highest share on either question since last spring. A quarter of those surveyed said they expect the economy to get worse over the next 12 months, while 31 percent said it would stay the same, the poll found.

As optimism has risen, Obama has received a corresponding bump in his approval rating for handling the economy. Forty-eight percent now say they approve of how he’s handling it, up 9 points from December.

This should be a concern for the Obama campaign. If the GOP circus during the past few weeks hasn’t boosted his general election chances, and his rebounding economic approval ratings aren’t doing the trick, then what exactly will help him?

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Christie to NJ: Everyone Sacrificed, Everyone Benefits

Yesterday was a pretty good day for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. As the video of his put-up-or-shut-up comments about Warren Buffett made the rounds, Quinnipiac released a poll showing Christie to be the favorite of possible Republican “white knights,” beating out Jeb Bush and Sarah Palin. Then the Republican candidates debated (again)–almost always a boon for any Republican not up on that stage.

But there was more to his Buffett shaming than simple grandstanding, and it revealed something about Christie’s own political prospects. I’ve written before about how Christie’s primary challenge in New Jersey was to summon the political capital necessary to continue enacting his much-needed reform agenda and win reelection as the state’s Democrats began to pull away from him. Christie has benefited from the cooperation of Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney and the vocal support of Newark Mayor Cory Booker, but they won’t be at his side when he runs for a second term.

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Yesterday was a pretty good day for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. As the video of his put-up-or-shut-up comments about Warren Buffett made the rounds, Quinnipiac released a poll showing Christie to be the favorite of possible Republican “white knights,” beating out Jeb Bush and Sarah Palin. Then the Republican candidates debated (again)–almost always a boon for any Republican not up on that stage.

But there was more to his Buffett shaming than simple grandstanding, and it revealed something about Christie’s own political prospects. I’ve written before about how Christie’s primary challenge in New Jersey was to summon the political capital necessary to continue enacting his much-needed reform agenda and win reelection as the state’s Democrats began to pull away from him. Christie has benefited from the cooperation of Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney and the vocal support of Newark Mayor Cory Booker, but they won’t be at his side when he runs for a second term.

November, meanwhile, dashed Christie’s hopes of getting more help from Republicans, as the Democrats held steady their majority in the state Senate and gained one seat in the Assembly.

As Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, told NJ Spotlight:

“It is a very disappointing night for Gov. Christie,” said Dworkin, adding the GOP should have gained as many as six seats. “He outraised the Democrats by millions of dollars. He put his high approval rating and his personal reputation on the line by going on network television in New York and Philadelphia. And in the end, he wasn’t able to even keep the status quo in the legislature, much less win the several seats that Republicans might have expected given his efforts.”

State Republicans were no more popular and the state legislature would move no closer to giving Christie an allied chamber. What’s more, the paradox of recovery threatened to sap Christie’s momentum further: as his reform measures began to work, the electorate’s appetite for sacrifice would diminish. So Christie had to make the argument that the state was not only moving in the right direction, but that the state’s residents are already beginning to reap the benefits of the first two years of Christie’s term. So on Tuesday, he announced his budget, and said this:

In this budget: I propose that we provide tax relief to every New Jersey citizen – through the first year of an across-the-board 10 percent cut in their income taxes; and increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor. The people of New Jersey have suffered for too long under the burden of high taxes, it is time for real relief.

I propose that we increase school aid, for the second year in a row, by over $200 million, to $8.8 billion, a record amount of state aid to education. There is no priority more important than educating our children, so let’s reform our schools and give them the tools to be great.

I propose that we more than double the state’s contribution to our pension system. Last year, we enacted landmark reform that showed the nation that we can come together on a bi-partisan basis to manage our long-term liabilities. In my budget, the state will make good on its obligation to fund our pension system….

So this package provides relief for every New Jerseyan, up and down the income scale. It recognizes that New Jersey’s tax situation had gotten out of control and begins to bring it back under our control. It recognizes that every New Jerseyan has shared in the sacrifice that was necessary to begin the New Jersey Comeback and that every New Jerseyan should share in the benefit we’re beginning to feel.

And that is really what his Buffett comment was about. Buffett has adopted the Democrats’ class warfare terminology, splitting the public into those who deserve government largesse and those who should pay even more to fund it. “Everyone deserves to have the government responsive to their concerns and needs,” Christie countered.

Christie is so popular among conservatives in part for this reason. He has shown conservative reform works and is the best antidote to the overspending, cronyism, and political patronage that wrecked the state’s finances in the first place.

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Netanyahu’s Surprising Achievement: Political Stability

Three years ago, most observers of the Middle East were sure about one thing: the newly elected coalition government in Israel being put together by Benjamin Netanyahu couldn’t last. In particular, the Obama administration, which was only a month old itself, was hopeful Netanyahu would quickly flop and be replaced by the more pliant Tzipi Livni, the leader of the Kadima Party. Thirty-six months later, as the Israeli prime minister prepares to journey to Washington for another crucial summit with President Obama, there is no talk about the post-Netanyahu era. Though the Jewish state remains beset with a host of problems, both foreign and domestic, the volatility that has plagued the country’s political system for decades is largely absent these days.

His is actually the first Israeli cabinet to last this long in 20 years. Given that a breakup in his coalition is unlikely, it is almost a certainty that it will serve out its full four-year-term, which will be the first time that has happened since Menachem Begin was prime minister more than 30 years ago. And with polls projecting that Netanyahu and the Likud will easily win the next election when it occurs sometime in 2013, it is clear what we are seeing in Israel is a new era of political stability. While this is a remarkable personal achievement for Netanyahu, its impact goes deeper than that. When Netanyahu arrives in Washington next month, President Obama will know he is dealing with a leader who is secure in power and has the backing of his nation.

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Three years ago, most observers of the Middle East were sure about one thing: the newly elected coalition government in Israel being put together by Benjamin Netanyahu couldn’t last. In particular, the Obama administration, which was only a month old itself, was hopeful Netanyahu would quickly flop and be replaced by the more pliant Tzipi Livni, the leader of the Kadima Party. Thirty-six months later, as the Israeli prime minister prepares to journey to Washington for another crucial summit with President Obama, there is no talk about the post-Netanyahu era. Though the Jewish state remains beset with a host of problems, both foreign and domestic, the volatility that has plagued the country’s political system for decades is largely absent these days.

His is actually the first Israeli cabinet to last this long in 20 years. Given that a breakup in his coalition is unlikely, it is almost a certainty that it will serve out its full four-year-term, which will be the first time that has happened since Menachem Begin was prime minister more than 30 years ago. And with polls projecting that Netanyahu and the Likud will easily win the next election when it occurs sometime in 2013, it is clear what we are seeing in Israel is a new era of political stability. While this is a remarkable personal achievement for Netanyahu, its impact goes deeper than that. When Netanyahu arrives in Washington next month, President Obama will know he is dealing with a leader who is secure in power and has the backing of his nation.

There are a number of reasons for Netanyahu’s success, but the most important of them is that experience helps. Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 was undermined by an arrogant refusal to listen to his cabinet colleagues and a reckless disregard for the impact of his statements on both his party and his nation’s sole ally, the United States. At that time, Netanyahu was wrongly blamed for derailing the peace process even though he repeatedly made concessions for the sake of peace while also getting the Palestinian Authority to crack down on terror. But his successes were overshadowed by his surly personality, and by the time he faced the electorate again, he had few friends left.

This time around, Netanyahu has been wiser, avoiding needless quarrels and maneuvering carefully in order to keep a diverse coalition moving in the right direction. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu Party could have dismantled the government several times, but Netanyahu smartly kept him inside the tent rather than out of it. Though Lieberman has continually talked about breaking up the coalition, he now finds himself stuck in it because a new election would diminish rather than strengthen his forces.

He has also been fortunate with his foes. Livni has been a hopeless opposition leader. Having refused Netanyahu’s offer of a coalition and a high cabinet post because she thought she would soon replace him, she now finds her party supplanted in the eyes of the public as the main alternative to the Likud by a resurgent Labor.

Even more important, Netanyahu has benefited from being the bête noire of President Obama. In the past, Israeli prime ministers always feared the enmity of American presidents, because to jeopardize the alliance was considered the political kiss of death in the Jewish state. But Obama is the least popular American president in history. Every attack launched on Netanyahu only strengthened his hold on power. By standing up to Obama on the future of Jerusalem and the 1967 lines, Netanyahu gained support rather than losing it as the president expected.

Though Obama has made no secret of his dislike for Netanyahu, the president must now acknowledge that Netanyahu is likely to remain as prime minister for the foreseeable future. Obama must also come to grips with the fact that his plans to revive the peace process has failed, and that Netanyahu’s evaluation of the Palestinians’ unwillingness to negotiate was far closer to the mark than his own opposition. Netanyahu’s political strength also makes it harder for Obama to try to muscle the Israeli on the issue of stopping Iran from going nuclear.

Three years after he plotted to dump Netanyahu, the president is also hoping Netanyahu will do nothing to complicate his own chances of re-election. As he attempts to walk back his quarrels with Jerusalem as part of his Jewish charm offensive, Obama must pay court to Netanyahu. The irony of this turnabout can’t be lost on the Israeli or his antagonist in the White House.

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Obama Apologizes for Koran Burning

Protests have been raging in Afghanistan for the past few days, after the U.S. military reportedly burned Korans – along with other confiscated religious materials – taken from detainees at Bagram Airfield. In an effort to restore peace, Obama sent a note of apology to Afghan President Hamid Karzai today, assuring him the Koran burning was unintentional:

“I wish to express my deep regret for the reported incident,” Obama wrote. “I extend to you and the Afghan people my sincere apologies.”

The president concludes the letter: “The error was inadvertent; I assure you that we will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible.”

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Protests have been raging in Afghanistan for the past few days, after the U.S. military reportedly burned Korans – along with other confiscated religious materials – taken from detainees at Bagram Airfield. In an effort to restore peace, Obama sent a note of apology to Afghan President Hamid Karzai today, assuring him the Koran burning was unintentional:

“I wish to express my deep regret for the reported incident,” Obama wrote. “I extend to you and the Afghan people my sincere apologies.”

The president concludes the letter: “The error was inadvertent; I assure you that we will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible.”

After a fringe pastor in Florida nearly sparked an international security incident by threatening to burn a pile of Korans, you’d think the U.S. military would at least have the proper safeguards in place to ensure this didn’t happen on their bases. As frustrating as it is to indulge the violent tantrums of religious fundamentalists by tiptoeing around their holy laws, if that’s going to be U.S. national security policy then at least make sure it’s carried out properly.

There actually apparently are exceptions under Islamic law permitting Korans to be disposed of through burning, though it’s usually discouraged, reports Slate. Typically, defaced Korans are buried in the ground or in water. I’m not sure how the U.S. military usually does it, though I imagine ritual or water burial aren’t always possible on military bases.

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Franklin Graham’s Troubling Theology

On Tuesday, Reverend Franklin Graham gave an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that created a bit of a stir among the political class. At the core of the controversy is what Graham said about President Obama’s Christianity.

When asked directly if the president was a Christian, Graham said, “He’s come out saying that he’s a Christian. The question is, What is a Christian?” At another point Graham said, “If he says he’s a Christian, I’m not going to say he’s not.” But when faced with this direct statement — “So therefore, by your definition, [Obama’s] not a Christian” – the Reverend Graham answered, “You have to ask him. I cannot answer that question for anybody.”

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On Tuesday, Reverend Franklin Graham gave an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that created a bit of a stir among the political class. At the core of the controversy is what Graham said about President Obama’s Christianity.

When asked directly if the president was a Christian, Graham said, “He’s come out saying that he’s a Christian. The question is, What is a Christian?” At another point Graham said, “If he says he’s a Christian, I’m not going to say he’s not.” But when faced with this direct statement — “So therefore, by your definition, [Obama’s] not a Christian” – the Reverend Graham answered, “You have to ask him. I cannot answer that question for anybody.”

Except that in the same interview, when asked if Rick Santorum is a Christian, Graham was able to answer that question for somebody. “Oh, I think so,” Graham said. He added there was “no question, I believe [Santorum is] a man of faith.” The Reverend Graham then chimed in, “I think Newt is a Christian. At least he told me he is.” To which Willie Geist said, “So Newt Gingrich is a Christian, but you’re not sure that President Obama is. And you said based on the way they’ve lived their lives.” And just in case Graham hadn’t said enough, when asked if he could say categorically that President Obama was not a Muslim, Graham said, “I can’t say categorically, because Islam has gotten a free pass under Obama.”

The problem here is Graham is judging President Obama’s faith commitment based on a political, not a theological, basis. What Graham seems to be arguing is that Obama is a liberal, he’s wrong on “moral issues,” and so a question mark has to be put over the faith of the president, who has spoken in moving terms about his own journey to Christianity.

This is dangerous territory for Graham to reside in. For one thing, it sounds as if the Reverend Graham is questioning whether one can be a political liberal and a Christian at the same time. Of course one can be and to suggest otherwise is offensive. (I’m tempted to say some of my closest friends are Christians who are politically liberal.)

For another, what exactly are the political issues that are closest to the heart of Jesus? The issue of war? Concern for the poor? The Global AIDS Initiative? World hunger? Creation care? Abortion? Or perhaps divorce? Does Graham believe he knows what Jesus’s political platform would look like? And while we’re at it, should we use the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament as the basis for that platform? Should our stands on political issues be informed by the Sermon on the Mount? The Book of Acts? Or perhaps the dietary laws found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy? What Franklin Graham is doing is what no minister of the Gospel should do, which is to interpret Christianity through a political lens.

Given the Reverend Graham’s tendencies, he might consider the following as a corrective of sorts. Jesus and His disciples demonstrated a profound mistrust of power, especially political power. Regarding a Christian’s place in the world, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And none of the disciples led anything approaching what we would consider a political movement. In addition, the history of the church offers its own reasons for demarcating Christianity from the sphere of politics. According to the social philosopher Jacques Ellul, every time the church has gotten heavily into the political game, it has been drawn into self-betrayal or apostasy.

There’s also something to be said about creating a little mental distance from the temptations of politics. In 1951, Prime Minister Winston Churchill offered C.S. Lewis the title of Commander of the British Empire, a high and appropriate distinction. But Lewis refused the honor. “I feel greatly obligated to the prime minister,” he responded, “and so far as my personal feelings are concerned this honour would be agreeable. There are always, however, knaves who say, and fools who believe, that my religious writings are all covert anti-Leftist propaganda, and my appearance in the Honours List would of course strengthen their hands. It is therefore better that I should not appear there.”

C.S. Lewis had higher goals and more urgent priorities than politics. So should Franklin Graham.

 

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