Why We Fear Sarah Palin

Opinion

By David Klinghoffer

Published October 02, 2008, issue of October 10, 2008.
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A friend of mine in the media covered the Republican National Convention and brought me back a souvenir: a navy blue yarmulke with “McCain ’08” printed on it in English and Hebrew. I guess there wasn’t time for the campaign to make them up with Sarah Palin’s name, too, which is a shame. With all the disquiet she has evoked in the Jewish community, that would be a collector’s item.

Jews themselves, and liberals who feel we belong naturally in the Democratic fold, give reasons for the gathering unease about her. A gaping cultural difference is noted. “Eating moose meat is not a big thing here in South Florida,” Senator Charles Schumer told Jewish retirees. One hears that Palin’s views on domestic issues go against the Jewish community’s “core values,” as Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz argued. That she’s anti-abortion is the problematic position most often cited as an example.

Her evangelical faith — more pronounced than that of President Bush — suggests itself as the cultural difference that explains most of the seemingly disparate sources of displeasure.

Which may sound like bigotry on the part of Jewish voters, as we would conclude about some Jewish Democrats, notably senior citizens, who have said to reporters and to me personally that Obama’s being black makes it hard to support him. The sentiment is apparently common in Florida retirement villages.

But unlike racism, the prejudice against evangelicals doesn’t yield to a simple diagnosis. If it’s a form of anti-Christianism, why do other Protestants fail to arouse the same feelings?

You’ll often hear a Jew say he fears being subjected to aggressive evangelization. But no evidence suggests that Palin has any interest in that. The best her critics have come up with is that she sat through a guest sermon at her church by David Brickner of Jews for Jesus. Yes, and at shuls I’ve attended I have sat through presentations by guest speakers that I found distasteful. Even the Anti-Defamation League gave her a pass on that one.

Possibly, some upper-middle-class Jews, with their recent immigrant roots, feel the same fear and loathing for the supposedly déclassé religious right that many gentile parvenus do, out of sheer class anxiety. This would explain the Jewish prejudice that you encounter sometimes against Orthodox Jews, too. But I can’t prove this.

Here is another plausible theory: According to a mythic master narrative that Jews find compelling, we have fared less well under the rule of Christian “true believers” than under Christians who are blasé or conflicted about their religion. (Calling this “mythic” doesn’t mean that, as history, it’s true or false.)

Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist, could talk God-talk to us. But since he’s a rascal, no one worried about it. Jews could accept McCain, too. Whatever he believes about ultimate questions, he has been allergic to saying much in public on the subject.

The same fact made his pre-Palin candidacy a turn-off to evangelicals and to others who assume that a well-formed worldview, informed by religious beliefs, may be more important in a candidate than how conversant he or she is with national and international policy issues. If elected, Palin would gain that expertise on the job, just as she mastered the intricacies of Alaska politics. Having a mature worldview, identical with wisdom, is a quality that serving in a high office will not bestow upon you.

So Palin speaks openly and confidently about her Christian beliefs, and she lives them, too. Terrifying, right? Yet I’m not sure I buy an explanation that centers quite so simply on her being Christian.

Barack Obama stresses his own faith experiences more than Sarah Palin does hers. The difference is that Palin’s spiritual beliefs are mirrored by her policy preferences, even to the point of giving offense. Hence, in Jewish discussions of Palin, the recurrent mention of the abortion issue. She has said she supports legal abortion only when the mother’s life is in danger — a position for which one could find considerable support in Jewish sources.

Perhaps it’s Judaism, not Christianity, that’s the nub of the matter. Hardly a month after she was introduced to us, Sarah Palin may indeed have managed to touch the exposed electrical power cable that runs through Jewish spirituality.

Torah, whether we like this fact or not, is about nothing if not giving practical expression to religious beliefs, in both private and public life, often in demanding and intrusive ways. That is a basic axiom of the Jewish worldview that offered transcendent meaning in life to generations of Jews before us.

So shouldn’t we be running toward Palin, instead of away? You might think so. But Jews of all denominations have grown increasingly distant from the traditional Jewish view of the world. Want proof?

This year’s exhaustive U.S. Religious Landscape Survey asked Americans how they saw the relationship between religion and politics. The study asked respondents if they would rank their religion as the top influence on their political beliefs. Jews were the group least likely to answer in the affirmative. Only 4% credited faith as so profoundly shaping their views on public life, compared, for example, to 28% of evangelicals.

Jews were also the second-most liberal religious group, with 34% identifying with the political left, behind only Buddhists (who include many born-Jews). Many politically conservative Jews I know likewise can’t explain how beliefs about God legitimately shape thoughts about anything broader than one’s own private behavior. Yet the Torah is about much else besides personal ethics.

The flight from what Sarah Palin represents, maximizing the voice we give to God in the world, has become a “core value” of contemporary Jewish life. That Jews would be unnerved by her is no shock.

David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author of “How Would God Vote?: Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative” (Doubleday).


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