Christian nationalists like Madison Cawthorn invoke Biblical Jews to disguise their pure antisemitism

The far-right congressman’s bombastic campaign spot about ‘a spiritual battle going on on Capitol Hill’ featured some of history’s oldest dogwhistles

Noah Berlatsky
Tuesday 05 October 2021 16:33 BST
Madison Cawthorn
Madison Cawthorn (EPA-EFE)

“Back in the Old Testament – look at David, look at Daniel, look at Esther, look at all of these people who influenced the governments of their day to uphold Christian principles,” North Carolina representative Madison Cawthorn declared in a campaign video posted on his Twitter account.

It’s easy to laugh at the anachronistic confusion here. Even in the context of prefigurative theology which sees Christ foreshadowed in the Old Testament, it’s a big stretch to argue that Esther was lobbying her government on Christian principles 450 years before Christ was born.

But Cawthorn’s hostility to chronology is less laughable when we recognize it as an expression of hostility to Jewish people – and of hostility to everyone who white Christian nationalists see as outsiders or enemies.

Cawthorn and the religious right often claim to be defenders of the Jews. But the video makes clear Cawthorn’s not-very latent imperial agenda. For Cawthorn, Jewish people are either virtuous subjects of white Christian nationalism, or they are recalcitrant anti-Christians in need of subjugation.

In the Trump era, white Christian nationalist rhetoric has become more and more openly violent and apocalyptic, and Cawthorn’s is more violent and apocalyptic than most. “It’s time for us to stand up and declare boldly that, as men and women of faith, we have a duty to stand against tyranny... It is time for the American Christian church to come out of the shadows...” he rants.

At the video’s conclusion, he explicitly presents partisan political opponents as enemies of the faith. “If we lose this country today, if we bend the knee to the Democrats today, our country will be lost, our children will never know what freedom is.”

Cawthorn and white evangelical Christian nationalists often present themselves as engaged in a holy war for American Christian values. They’re fairly open about what that means for some religions; a solid majority of white Evangelical Christians supported Trump’s Muslim ban. But when it comes to Jewish people, Christian nationalists are less forthright. White Evangelicals often refer to their support for “Judeo-Christian values”, suggesting they are fighting for Jewish traditions as well as Christian ones. And Evangelical Christians have been extremely supportive of Israel.

When you look closer at Christian nationalism’s support of the Jews, though, the support looks less like support and more like thinly veiled co-optation. “Judeo-Christian values” is a relatively young term, one meant to use the weight of Jewish history to legitimise a conservative Christian agenda. It also neatly erases the fact that for 2,000 years, Christian values have included persecuting Jewish people.

Similarly, support for Israel among white evangelicals is fueled by antipathy to Muslims and by end-time prophecies which suggest that Jews need to be gathered in the Middle East to bring about the millennium – at which point they will be converted or sent to damnation.

Trump on more than one occasion insisted that Jewish people who voted against him were disloyal to Israel, and by implication to him. White Christian nationalism embraces Jewish people – as long as those Jewish people support the white Christian nationalist agenda. If they do not, then they are traitors. And the historical record has particularly ugly things to say about what happens to Jewish people when Christians decide they are traitors to God or state.

The contrast between good Christian Jews and bad unchristian Jews is implicit in Cawthorn’s video as well. Jewish people like David, Daniel, and Esther who have been safely dead for millennia are presented as advancing Christian government even before Christ. Living Jewish people are not mentioned at all – but Democrats are. And two-thirds to three-quarters of Jewish people vote for Democrats. Cawthorn sees himself as carrying the banner of a supposedly Christian Esther into battle to overthrow the evil tyranny imposed by the political coalition that includes the vast majority of actual Jewish people.

This isn’t surprising. White Christian nationalism is a virulently intolerant and xenophobic movement obsessed with purity and power. It is anti-immigrant, racist, and rabidly Islamophobic. It is homophobic and misogynist. And, like Christian and white Christian nationalist movements of the past, it is antisemitic.

The fact that Cawthorn and those like him enjoy referencing historical Jewish figures or touting support for Israel isn’t a sign of tolerance. On the contrary, it shows Christian nationalists feel entitled to define Judaism and to annex Jewish causes, faith, and people for their own religious ends.

Smug entitlement can turn quickly to violent rage when supposed junior partners in the nationalist march express some doubts about their place in the great Christian crusade. When Cawthorn says Esther was advancing Christian principles, the message to Jewish people, and for that matter to non-Jewish people , is clear enough: we all are to conform to Cawthorn’s idea of a Christian Esther … or else.

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