At an intimate campaign stop in Waverly, Iowa, on January 18, an atheist asked Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio why his recent ad said nothing about policy ideas and instead went into great detail about faith, God and heaven. The questioner wanted to know how Rubio planned to uphold the religious rights of all, not just those who agree with his Christian worldview.
Rubio’s ad made sense for the audience it was designed for: a conservative Christian base in Iowa. Voters there have always been receptive to these kinds of messages. But while the atheist individual at this campaign stop might have been an anomaly there, his apprehension about voting for an outspoken Christian is common in many parts of the country. It’s not just atheists who feel anxious about Rubio’s message about Jesus and his Church — it’s Jews, too.
An inherent distrust of Christianity and fear of an evangelical theocracy prevent many Jews from voting for the GOP. Even if they agree with Republican candidates on many points, they don’t like the idea of social and geopolitical policy being decided according to the New Testament.
In his 2008 book “Why Are Jews Liberal?” one of the fathers of neoconservatism, Norman Podhoretz, details Jews’ apprehensions about Christianity, particularly as they pertain to politics. Podhoretz describes the anti-Semitic history of Catholic and Christian denominations from their infancy up until roughly fifty years ago. He makes no apologies for a justifiable fear, based on self-preservation, that European Jews needed to hold close in order to survive. When he was promoting the book on “The Hugh Hewitt Show” in 2008, Podhoretz pinpointed the moment in time when it became illogical for Jews to so closely align themselves with the American left:
There was a great and unexpected reversal of roles between left and right with respect to Jewish concerns, but especially to Israel. After 1967, after the Six Day War of 1967, the left, both in this country and in the rest of the world, which had been pro-Israel up to that point, turned and became increasingly hostile to Israel, and sympathetic to its enemies, the Palestinians and the surrounding Arab states; while the right, and especially the Christian churches, and especially the fundamentalists and evangelical sectors of the Protestant world, became increasingly sympathetic to Israel.
After this “reversal,” Podhoretz argued, the type of Jewish voter who prioritizes the security of the Jewish state as well as Jewish law ought to vote Republican.
Still, many Jews continue to be wary of GOP candidates like Rubio. But if Rubio could manage to convey to them his most salient points in the tone of a devoted and humble layman — not as a preacher, which is how he must have come off to the atheist in Iowa — then he might be able to quell Jews’ fears about voting Republican. In fact, his message might excite them. Just look at what he told that atheist:
You shouldn’t be worried about my faith influencing me. In fact, you should hope that my faith influences me. You know what my faith teaches me? My faith teaches me that I have an obligation to care for the less fortunate. My faith teaches me that I have an obligation to love my neighbor. My faith teaches me that I have an obligation for those who are hungry to help try to feed them, for those who are naked to help clothe them. My faith teaches me that I have to minister to those who are prison. My faith teaches me that if I want to serve Jesus, I have to serve each other. And I think you should hope that it influences me. I know it has made this a greater country.
This is a message that most Jews, myself included, don’t hear often enough about the teachings of Christianity. Faithful Christians aren’t just devoted to worshiping Jesus, but are also committed to upholding what they view to be his lasting legacy: ministering to the less fortunate.
This Christian American commitment to caring for the needy isn’t just talk. In a 2013 study on philanthropy and faith, religious Americans (the majority of whom are Christian) were shown to be more generous than their secular neighbors: 75% of individuals who regularly attend religious services donate to charity and 60% donate to secular not-for-profits. Less than 50% of Americans who don’t attend regular religious services do the same.
Most American Jews are familiar with the notion of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world.” This repairing is accomplished by doing good deeds or mitzvot. Rubio is no slacker when it comes to doing mitzvot; he donated the same amount to charity as he did to repay his student loans ($150,000) and in 2013 he launched a fundraiser for his 42nd birthday to help bring clean water to developing countries.
While a Rubio candidacy might inherently entice an Orthodox voter, who is already more receptive to Republican ideas, this emphasis on doing mitzvot as part of one’s expression of faith is a theme that would likely also appeal to a fiscally conservative Reform or Conservative Jewish voter.
Rubio isn’t the most conservative Republican on the ticket, nor is he the candidate likeliest to thrill voters most guided by their Christian faith. His forceful declarations about what it means to be a Christian will probably make more than a few such voters warm to his candidacy, but that’s not enough. Assuming he’s able to knock off Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the current darlings of the populist GOP, Rubio will also need to broaden his appeal by talking more about his faith in this manner to the rest of the electorate, which is far more moderate in both its religious and political views.
This type of honest conversation about what his Christian faith means, and what it requires of him, has the potential to help Rubio achieve what few Republicans have been able to do in America — that is, sway more than a handful of Jewish voters.
Bethany Mandel writes on politics and culture, usually from a conservative perspective.