Rick Santorum and the Jewish Vote

Republican's Trashing of Church-State Divide Kills GOP Brand

Makes Jews Wanna Holler: Rick Santorum is courting evangelical Christian voters by saying he favors a much looser interpretation of the church-state divide. That stance is likely to repel Jewish voters from him, and the Republican Party.
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Makes Jews Wanna Holler: Rick Santorum is courting evangelical Christian voters by saying he favors a much looser interpretation of the church-state divide. That stance is likely to repel Jewish voters from him, and the Republican Party.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published March 01, 2012, issue of March 09, 2012.
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Pennsylvania, it’s sometimes said, can best be understood as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh separated by Alabama. Geographically speaking it’s a big state in the heart of the liberal Northeast, home to great universities, Ben Franklin and the Liberty Bell, anchored by a great Eastern metropolis at one end and a once-booming Midwestern steel town at the other. Everything in between, though, is rural, gun-totin’, Bible-thumpin’ country.

It’s no surprise, then, that every peculiarity of America’s perpetual religious quarreling seems to collide in Pennsylvania. It was founded as a haven for religious dissenters by Quaker leader William Penn, who envisioned Philadelphia as a city of brotherly love. It is the cradle of American tolerance, where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, where the Constitution and Bill of Rights were signed. More recently, it was the scene of a celebrated court battle over a local school board’s effort to make biology students learn divine creationism — they called it Intelligent Design — in a town called Dover, just above the Mason-Dixon Line.

And it is the home state of Rick Santorum, the scrappy ex-senator who has made his distinctive religious views the centerpiece of his underdog Republican presidential campaign.

If he succeeds, it will mark a notable advance for minority religious believers in this country. He will be only the second Catholic ever to reach the White House, following in the path cleared for him by another senator from the Northeast, John F. Kennedy.

You’ve probably heard by now about Santorum’s homage to the martyred president who made his candidacy possible. Kennedy famously flew to Houston on September 12, 1960, to reassure a gathering of mostly-Southern Baptist ministers that he would not threaten the separation of church and state (yes, Southern Baptists used to worry about such things) by taking orders from priests. The first time Santorum read that speech, he told a Catholic college last October, he “almost threw up.”

As the cradle of American political-religious mudslinging, Pennsylvania has naturally been ground zero in the contest for the Jewish vote. Indeed, it was the site of America’s very first public effort to woo Jews away from the party of Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt. The candidate in question was Jefferson. It was 1800, the first presidential election featuring political parties. Jefferson headed the newly formed Democratic-Republican Party, today’s Democrats. That fall a Federalist newspaper in Philadelphia, the Gazette, published an article by one Moses S. Solomons warning his fellow Jews that Jefferson, the nation’s leading advocate of church-state separation, was an enemy of “all religion.”

The Federalist ploy fizzled when the city’s lone synagogue, whose president was a fiery Jeffersonian named Benjamin Nones, announced that “[n]o such man as Moses S. Solomons” had “ever been” (their emphasis) a member of the Jewish community. It couldn’t have helped the Federalists’ cause that the Gazette had attacked Nones that summer as part of “the filth of society,” being “a Jew, a [Democratic-] Republican, and poor.” This prompted Nones’ famous reply: “How then can a Jew but be a Republican?” (meaning, confusingly, a Democrat).


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