(November 24, 2020 / JNS) Most American Jews have trouble relating to any Republican. But Madison Cawthorn is an even heavier lift for Jewish liberals than most. After winning a North Carolina district earlier this month, the 25-year-old conservative Christian will be among the youngest persons to ever serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. The partially paralyzed youth made a strong impression on a national audience in August when he rose from his wheelchair to stand at the conclusion of his speech to the Republican National Convention, during which he spoke of his personal struggles and his vow to be a “radical for liberty.”
Lately, he’s in the news because of an interview he gave to Jewish Insider in which he claimed to have tried to convert Jews, as well as Muslims, to Christianity. Some commentators, like The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie, have treated that as either deeply offensive if not anti-Semitic. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Abraham Gutman went so far as to claim that Cawthorn’s attempts to convince others to adopt his faith is “textbook anti-Semitism, soon to be taxpayer-funded.”
MSNBC’s Chris Hayes went on to compare Cawthorn’s comments to the anti-Semitic tweets of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) in which she trafficked in a variety of anti-Semitic tropes, including alleging dual loyalty on the part of supporters of Israel and the claim that Jews buy support for the Jewish state. Hayes noted ruefully that Cawthorn’s comments “won’t get 1/20th of the coverage” of Omar’s hate.
While there are reasons to question Cawthorn’s fitness for office, the claim that his missionary instincts are proof of anti-Semitism—let alone comparable to Omar’s record—is pure bunk. More to the point, they speak volumes not only a lack of understanding of evangelical Christianity on the part of secular Americans and liberal Jews, but also to the way that the discussion of anti-Semitism has been hijacked on the left in such a way as to make it impossible to distinguish between actions that may make Jews uncomfortable, and those that are actual threats to Jewish security and rights.
As those who have followed Cawthorn’s progress since his upset win in a GOP primary earlier this year, it might be best to take Cawthorn’s claims that he has brought “several Muslims to Christ,” as well as having had mixed success with Jews, with a shovelful of salt. Cawthorn’s biography—or at least its first iteration at the start of his congressional campaign—has been shown to have included exaggerations and embroidery around the truth, such as his claim that he was headed to the U.S. Naval Academy until the car crash that deprived him of his ability to walk. It turned out that although former House member and current White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, whose seat Cawthorn now holds, did nominate him for Annapolis, his application had already been rejected before the accident.
Then there’s the bizarre story about him taking a trip to Europe with friends and crossing an item off of his “bucket list” by going to Berchtesgaden, Adolf Hitler’s mountaintop home, which either means he’s something of a World War II buff or has questionable taste in vacation spots.
As someone who dropped out of college after one semester, his résumé couldn’t be slimmer. But Cawthorn, who appears to have found a calling as a lay non-denominational preacher, seems to care deeply about his Christian faith as well as politics. Telling his story as a survivor of tragedy and disability has inspired people. That explains his election to Congress, even in a deep red district, despite his tender age and lack of qualifications.
Reading his account of how it felt to take part in the congressional orientation program this month along with other freshmen, one hears an echo of Jefferson Smith, the naive fictional hero of Frank Capra’s classic tribute to American patriotism, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” What he lacks in deep thought, he makes up with platitudes mixed with a clear reverence for the august institution into which he has unaccountably parachuted.
But for his liberal critics, Cawthorn’s actual shortcomings are irrelevant. What those who wish to demonize evangelicals care about is a chance to anoint any Republican as the moral equivalent of the resident anti-Semites among the Democrats’ far-left “Squad,” such as Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who are supporters of the anti-Semitic BDS movement and want to destroy the only Jewish state on the planet.
Anyone who tries to convert Jews away from their faith needs to understand that the historical baggage associated with such efforts. Many centuries of Christian persecution of Jews, including efforts to force their conversions inclines Jews to view missionizing as inherently offensive, if not evidence of hostility.
But this isn’t Medieval Europe. Americans live in a free country where Jews are freely accepted in the highest offices of the land and every sector of secular society even while openly practicing their faith. As much as many Jews view those who live in “flyover country” with suspicion and anti-Semitism still exists on the far-right, as well as the far-left, it is also true that this is a profoundly philo-Semitic nation.
In the marketplace of ideas, all people are free to share their faith and to attempt to persuade others of its merits. To evangelicals, the idea of spreading the “good news” of their religion’s promise of salvation is considered an act of friendship and kindness, even if Jews, as a small minority whose numbers were radically diminished by the Holocaust, view it as a threat to our survival as a people. Jews have been saying “no” to those trying to convert them for thousands of years and doing so now without any threat of coercion is no hardship. Those with a strong foundation in Judaism are not likely recruits to other faiths. Only those who are insecure or ignorant about their heritage seem to worry much about Christian proselytizing.
Christians like Cawthorn may seem unsettling because of the cultural and political differences between him and the mostly liberal and secular American Jewish community. But he seems to have no real connections to white supremacists who threaten Jews with violence. Cawthorn doesn’t seem to know much about Jews he didn’t read about in the Bible. But if you think he’s a threat to Jewish security, you haven’t been paying attention to what the BDS movement has been doing on college campuses, or who it is that is assaulting Jews wearing kipahs or identifying jewelry on the streets of Western European capitals, let alone the hate that is preached in much of the Islamic world.
Cawthorn’s missionizing is in no way comparable to the open anti-Semitism and hatred for Israel on the left where acceptance of intersectional myths and concepts about Jews as “white oppressors” of indigenous peoples are commonplace. Those who call him an anti-Semite because of his proselytizing are mistaking their cultural prejudices for actual threats.
Like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a similarly charismatic youthful demagogue who has risen to congressional stardom on the basis of her appeal to the Democratic Party’s grassroots, Cawthorn’s arrival on Capitol Hill speaks to many of the troubling aspects of American politics in the 21st century. But his desire to spread his faith is not evidence of anti-Semitism.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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