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Atheist Jews Should Thank God for Evangelicals
We're not going away. Sorry.
In the event of World War III, don’t panic. Scott Adams has a plan:
If it ever becomes necessary to deprogram all religious people at the same time -- perhaps to avoid a nuclear war -- you could do it with a 10-minute video lesson focused on how all religions started, with a summary of what they believe, translated into all languages.
No persuasion tricks needed. You only need the facts that everyone agrees on. Example: Group A believes in X.
Pattern recognition will do the rest.
Well. Give the man his Nobel Peace Prize now.
Some people wondered whether he was serious, but on scrolling through his replies, he seems to be, or else he’s keeping up a first-rate long-form troll. I found one exchange especially interesting. Someone counters, “Religion is not only about belief. It’s not even mostly about belief.” “Belief is the dangerous part,” replies Scott. Someone else chimes in to ask what about Islam, where submission plays a bigger role than belief. Would submission also be unraveled by this 10-minute reeducation experiment? Scott says, “Yes.”
In fairness to Scott’s fellow atheists, I don’t think they’re all quite this naive. Sam Harris, who’s recently been enjoying some renewed semi-relevance, would probably tell Scott he just doesn’t get how the mind of a religious fanatic works. No doubt Sam would also love it if all religious people everywhere could just be deprogramed with a YouTube lecture, but I think even he knows better than to propose it with a straight face.
However, Sam and Scott and other atheists cut from this cloth still share the same basic assumption that all the trouble in the world comes down to religion. These days, they tend to spend more time and energy on Islam than Christianity, but only because it’s 2023, not 2003, and they can no longer draw crowds or sell books with visions of “Christianist” bogeymen. The underlying hostility is still there, as we’ve seen in recent reactions to the election of new Speaker of the House Mike Johnson.
Like most people, I didn’t have any opinions about Mike Johnson until a few weeks ago, but it’s been illuminating to watch how quickly legacy media types have creaked into action to make sure everyone knows just how terrible, awful, no-good, very bad he is. Apparently, Mr. Johnson is a raging homophobe, blatantly Christian nationalist, a Christian nationalist on steroids, no less! Bill Maher called him “David Duke lite” and opined that perhaps there’s only a difference in “degree” between Johnson and the recent mass shooter who heard voices in his head. Most recently, the intrepid journalists at Rolling Stone dug up a Q & A clip where Johnson recommends an anti-porn software called Covenant Eyes. As a trust-building exercise, Johnson allowed his son to get weekly reports about his own web activity. In context, it’s made clear that neither of them actually has a pornography addiction. But the “unearthed video” was distorted into the hook that Johnson “admits he and his son monitored each other’s porn intake.” By the end, the article has devolved into the usual foam-flecked word salad: “faith-obsessed, election-denying, far-right Christian nationalist…” Or, as someone on Twitter put it a bit more colorfully to me, “Of course you love him. He’s Taliban America.”
Even Johnson’s more suave critics can’t resist an implied comparison to Muslim terrorists. On Twitter, journalist Matthew Yglesias chortled over the fact that Johnson is a Young Earth Creationist: “You’re appalled that the new speaker wants to criminalize gay sex and sentence people to hard labor for abortions, I think it’s funny that he believes 85 dinosaur species were on Noah’s Ark. We are not the same.” Then, pivoting swiftly to his next profound insight: “To connect to the other major news of the day, an important reality about Israel/Palestine is that a lot of the relevant people (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim) are making decisions based on supernatural considerations.”
Oh, those silly religious people and their silly supernatural considerations. Beheading babies, raping teenagers, building creationist museums—where does it end?
The new Speaker of the House is Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana. And in the time of stress when the earth is shifting and alliances are falling apart, it’s nice to find a good old fashioned wack-a-doo Republican to help orient ourselves. Johnson argued to criminalize gay sex (I agree). He wants to effectively ban IVF, since discarding an embryo would be considered murder (excuse me while I have seven babies now, by law). He used to lobby for the Noah’s Ark theme park, which believes there were exactly 85 pairs of dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark along with humans (correct). Gotta say, this guy’s takes are working for me. Reading his old arguments on how young the earth is or how the Bible should be taught as literal history, I’m soothed. These are a California liberal’s natural enemies. I learned what evolution is so that I might take on a real-life creationist one day. This is the man I should be protesting in a familiar tit-for-tat that is the pitter-patter of our national conversation.
As I type, there are protesters at New York University who are screaming: “We don’t want no two-states, we want all of it!” I’m not built to fight Hamas, guys. I don’t want to do sharia. I have great legs. This isn’t right. I’m built to be getting a little too heated about a bike lane. I’m supposed to be waiting my turn to give a PowerPoint about plastic waste at a city council meeting. I was perfectly crafted to argue with Mike Johnson about dinosaur bones. And so, Mike, thank you. As soon as professors stop trying to globalize the intifada in my living room, I’m coming for you. Give me five minutes to help some Jewish students escape through these tunnels, and then you and I are going to have some tough conversations about abortion and a women’s right to bodily autonomy. I genuinely can’t wait.
Give Bowles some credit here. At least she recognizes that Mike Johnson doesn’t pose the current moment’s clearest and most present danger to a Jewish California liberal. (Bowles isn't ethnically Jewish but regards herself as a convert to a progressive form of Judaism.) Of course, she neglected to mention that he was working on a just-approved large aid package to Israel, because that would have interrupted her flow.
The irony is that there are card-carrying Christian Nationalists out there, but Johnson is far from the “Christian prince” they’re looking for. While leftist media was having a meltdown, actual far-right Twitter was circulating a clip where Johnson said he believes his adopted black son has experienced discrimination. They likely also wouldn’t be impressed by Johnson’s interview with Sean Hannity, where he describes himself as “a rule of law guy” who thinks abortion should be left to the states, refers to Obergefell as the “law of the land” (though still signaling his disapproval of the decision), and emphasizes that as a follower of Jesus, he “doesn’t hate anyone based on their lifestyle.” I mean shoot, I think this guy is a little square, and I’ve blocked or muted like three quarters of Christian nationalist Twitter. But in 2003 he wrote an amicus brief arguing there’s no such thing as a constitutional right to sodomy, so clearly the end of democracy as we know it is nigh.
Meanwhile, I offer a few thoughts for Johnson’s detractors, and by extension the detractors of evangelical Christianity. I especially want to point a few things out for the benefit of self-identified Jewish detractors like Maher and Bowles, who have simultaneously—and commendably—been planting their flag in support of Israel in recent days. Maher just put out a viral monologue extolling the virtues and values of “Western civilization,” pointing to Israel as an “outpost” of such. He suggests that if the leftist elite class likes to have nice things like human rights, perhaps they shouldn’t be running interference for Hamas. The point is well made, except that Maher never looks down at the branch he’s sitting on. Jean-Jacques Rousseau gets multiple hat-tips throughout, but Jesus doesn’t even get one. This is historically myopic, as even a religiously ambivalent historian like Tom Holland will argue. It's especially amusing given that Maher is praising, well, Israel, and Jesus was, well, Jewish.
Granted, Maher is praising Israel qua secularized Western liberal nation, not qua religious ethno-state. A Jewish nation enforcing orthodox Jewish moral codes wouldn’t agree with Maher. This distinction wants some teasing out in the broader discourse around exactly what it means for Israel to embody “Western values” in a Middle Eastern context. Maher would count abortion rights and gay marriage among such values, but Jesus wouldn’t have been a fan. Worth an article unto itself, but for now my chief point is that Maher can’t even begin to have a meaningful conversation about human rights, human dignity, etc., without paying due homage to the Judeo-Christian ethic.
Further, Maher specifically doesn’t seem to care that in mocking rightwing evangelical Christians, he alienates some of the global Jewish community’s most consistently loyal allies. A while back I read a fascinating, though sad thread by secular Jewish journalist Chad Felix Greene, recalling that whenever he organized pro-Israel events in his town, “the biggest supporters were Christians. Especially Evangelical Christians.” As for the leftwing Jewish community, by and large they were no-shows. Why? Because they didn’t want to be seen in public with rightwing evangelical Christians. They had so completely rebuilt their Judaism around progressivism that they no longer recognized who their true friends actually were. One poll puts some numbers to this asymmetry: Evangelicals have a +39 net favorability rating of Jews, while Jews have a -40 favorability rating of evangelical Christians.
Nevertheless, the evangelicals have persisted, and among those who do recognize their friends, they are building trust. I saw a heartwarming clip about some American cowboys who have shown up to help replace Israel’s farm laborers as the nation calls up its reserves. These young guys come from states like Montana and Arkansas, and they have names like Ezekiel and Luke and Joseph, and needless to say, they probably don’t watch Bill Maher. But they’re in Israel, and Bill Maher is not.
Meanwhile, as Ivy Leaguers and journal editors sport Palestine chic and tear down hostage posters, Liberty University just held a massive convocation interviewing two survivors of October 7—brothers, who have family among the hostages. And yes, I’m aware of the many misadventures of Jerry Falwell, Jr. No, I’m not saying he and his wife didn’t deserve their fall from grace. I’m just saying that in November 2023, you will find many, many more friends of Israel in an evangelical university than the halls of Harvard and Yale.
Writing for the Jewish magazine Forward, a young Christian deconvert debunks ignorant conspiracy theories about why evangelicals “really” support Israel, including the garbled idea that they actually want Israel to usher in the end times so that Jesus can come back and kill all the Jews in one fell swoop. (This was a new one on me.) The writer grew up in the most fundamentalist conservative home you can imagine. He left that fundamentalism behind, but he knows where his love for the Jewish people came from, and he still honors it.
Last weekend, I got together with some of my extended family for a little reunion. My great-uncle and great-aunt passed around old family photos. To give you a sense of the stock I come from, one picture showed my first cousin once removed with Franklin Graham. (They were making pancakes together for a military couples’ retreat, in case you wondered what the Religious Right gets up to in their spare time.) I told my great-uncle and aunt about a magazine story I wrote on the persecuted church in India, whereupon my great-aunt ordered my great-uncle to fetch her purse so she could write out a check for an indigenous missionary friend of mine. As I was thanking her later, her mind free-associated to other causes they’ve supported. She is nearly 90, and she isn’t what I would call declining, but she takes her time to form her thoughts. She recalled that they always used to give to some sort of organization “for the Jews,” but she could no longer remember the details when I asked her. “I don’t know,” she said, her brow furrowing in concentration. “But it was for the Jews,” she repeated.
I’m not saying one needs distinctly religious reasons to support Israel’s right to exist. But I also submit that it’s bigoted and incurious of Bill Maher’s ilk to never once ask themselves just why evangelicals have expended themselves so long and so tirelessly “for the Jews,” and whether their religion might have something to do with it. I further submit that they should ask themselves why, once the Islamists are through with “the Saturday people,” they have vowed to wage an equally bloody war on “the Sunday people.”
They won’t, of course. They will continue tweeting and monologuing and imagining a utopia with no Islamists or “Christianists,” just Sam Harris and Bill Maher and their enlightened fanboys. They will continue to shut their eyes and try to imagine there’s no heaven, and no religion too.
They’re welcome to go on trying. Meanwhile, the rest of us will go on keeping our eyes open.