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God help us

By Joseph Aaron
Chicago Jewish News
January 24, 2001

CHICAGO, — There is a difference between Joe and John because there is a difference between Jesus and God.

A big difference. At least to us.

Now, I understand that to Christians there is no difference, that Jesus is both the son of God and God. How that can be, I must admit, I do not understand, but that really doesn't matter. After all, it's none of my business.

Just as Jesus should not be the business of our government. But if some early signs are any indication, he's very much going to be a part of things for the next four years, which, as I see it, is not a very good thing at all.

We all remember some of the things George W. Bush did and said before he became president that gave some of us pause, Jesus-wise. How he said that only those who accept Jesus will have a place in heaven. How he declared Jesus Day in Texas. How, when asked which political philosopher or thinker had had the greatest influence on him, he answered Jesus.

It all made me more than a little uncomfortable, since one of the absolute bedrocks of this society is the separation of church and state. The notion that every individual has the absolute right to believe and worship as he or she wishes, but that government must absolutely keep away from anything to do with faith.

We keep faith separate because faith tends to separate. And the miracle of this country is how so many people from so many different places with so many different beliefs and traditions and customs all become Americans and make it possible for us all to come together in America.

That's vital to who we are as a people and what we are about as a country.

Which is why I find the early days of the Bush II administration so much a cause for concern. And why I find it absolutely unbelievable that there are some Jews, indeed Jews who see themselves as the most fervent of us all, not only accepting it, but cheering it on.

Let us begin with John, not the apostle, but the nominee for Attorney General. In a speech that still sends a chill up my spine, and not the good kind, he told an audience at the racist, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic Bob Jones University that in this country, ``we have no king but Jesus."

I thought the whole point of this country is that we have no king. That's kinda why we had that whole to-do with Britain. But I thought, more importantly, that Jesus is something private, not someone a public official, let alone the nation's chief law enforcement officer, should be proclaiming king.

So to hear John Ashcroft say in this country there is ``no king but Jesus," is to see a flashing neon sign that this guy doesn't get it. And so shouldn't be it. Attorney general that is.

Those on the right who support him, however, say that my saying that is very unfair. Why? Because there were many like me who had no problem with, indeed took great pride in, Joe Lieberman getting up there and talking about his faith, saying prayers and invoking God.

Why, they ask, is okay for Joe to talk about God but not okay for John to talk about Jesus?

After all, fair is fair. If Joe didn't scare us with his God talk, John shouldn't scare us with his Jesus talk.

What they don't seem to understand is that there is a very big difference between talking about God and talking about Jesus. God is inclusive, Jesus is exclusionary.

In God we trust. One nation under God. God bless America.

Those words are something all Americans (okay, yes, except for atheists) feel part of, take pride and comfort and meaning in. Bring us together, define who we are.

In Jesus we trust, one nation under Jesus, Jesus bless America, is a whole other thing. Those are words that say to all those who do not worship Jesus, that you are on the outside looking in, that you're not part of things, that you are somehow lesser.

That is not something a high-ranking public official should do. That is not something our government must ever do.

For once you start down that road, it becomes a very slippery slope. When John Ashcroft says that in this country our only king is Jesus, he must inevitably deep in his soul, see Jews as somehow defective. When George W. Bush, our president, says that only those who accept Jesus have a place in heaven, how can that not effect his view of Jews, his attitude toward Israel. It'll happen in ways he'll never express and that we'll never know. But that doesn't make them any less real. And that, indeed, makes them all the more frightening.

Equally frightening to me are Jews who have run to Ashcroft's defense, including the spokesman for a prominent fervently Orthodox group. When asked to comment on Ashcroft's in this country, ``we have no king but Jesus," the spokesman said, ``when Ashcroft refers to Jesus, it's akin to a Jew using the word God."

How very wrong. No, it is not. God, as this rabbi should well know, is something we all share, that embraces us all. Jesus does not. Would it be the same, dear rabbi, if at the end of his oath, George W. Bush would have said, ``So help me Jesus," instead of ``So help me God." They would not have been akin. At least not to me.

This is not petty semantics. For the exclusionary effect of Jesus not only runs counter to the very essence of what this democracy is about, but it is the first step to coercion and intrusion and judging others. Lieberman's talk about God gave us all common ground, whatever our specific beliefs, encouraged tolerance and respect for each other, for we are all the children of God. Ashcroft's talk about king Jesus does precisely the opposite, highlights our differences, makes some of us orphans.

God has and should have an honored and central place in the life of this country. We are one country under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Jesus should have an honored and central place in the hearts and lives of any of our citizens who choose that. But there is no place for him in the public square. We are not one country under Jesus.

Which is why I am so fearful not only about Ashcroft but, more importantly, about George W. Bush. My fear is that his administration will engage in what, appropriately enough, the Jesuits call ``holy effrontery."

It's a great term that I've just learned and that sadly way too many Jews are guilty of. Holy effrontery is a badge of honor, identifying those who, as Time magazine puts it, ``are so convinced of the rightness of their cause that they can't even conceive that they might be wrong.'' And because they are so convinced, they feel they can use any means to promote it.

I believe lots of the Bushies, starting with Dubya himself, are holy effronters. Which means they know best how people should live their lives, which means any means to make that happen are not only acceptable but noble.

It's gonna be a long four years.

Made all the more long because of Jews, like that rabbi for whom the Jesus talk is cool, who don't see how this blurring of the line between church and state is dangerous to all Americans and especially hazardous for Jewish Americans.

I must admit I am totally amazed that so many right-wing Jews support Bush. To me, it is as inconceivable for there to be such a thing as a Jewish Republican as it is for there to be a Jew for Jesus.

You just can't be both. Being one makes being the other a contradiction in terms.

But while Jews for Jesus advocates are tiny in number, Jewish Republicans, sad to report, are growing in number, are happy that Dubya is president.

They are that because they think his conservative views match theirs in his opposition to a woman's right to choose, to gay rights and so forth. What they somehow don't see is that while that may true, their opposition and his come from very different places. His comes from a place that, at its core, also has no room for them, not in heaven, or even in the Cabinet.

What they will learn over the next four years is what they should already know now. Namely, that things like public funding for religious groups and activities, at the heart of the Bush agenda, is a threat to the separation of church and state, which is a threat to us.

And that saying Jesus is not akin to saying God.

© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission
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