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Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024
The Observer

Why you should be concerned about Christian nationalism

Following Pope Urban II’s call to wage war on Muslims, members of the First Crusade took up arms and departed Europe to conquer the Holy Land. Before they arrived, though, Crusaders found themselves pillaging Jewish villages along their journey. The most notable of these incidents was the Rhineland Massacres of 1096, which is considered the first large-scale act of antisemitic violence in medieval Europe. Jewish towns in central and western Germany were attacked and plundered. Some Jewish residents fled while others found by the Crusaders underwent forced conversion or were killed. 

As we all know, the Rhineland Massacres weren’t the end of Jewish persecution in Europe. The antisemitic attitudes that prompted them, especially calls for vengeance against “the murderers of Christ,” continued well beyond the 11th century with its climax of the Holocaust (although antisemitism is still very much alive in Europe today). The Disputation of Paris in 1240 involved Pope Gregory IX’s efforts to censor the Talmud, a collection of rabbinic commentary in Judaism, through the court of King Louis IX of France. In a broader effort to convert the Jews to Christianity, nearly 10,000 handwritten Jewish holy texts were burned on the charge of blasphemy. 

In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew, was arrested on the charge of spying for the Prussians following France’s loss in the Franco-Prussian War. Amidst accusations about his loyalty to France, Dreyfus was exiled to Devil’s Island on account of a colonel’s testimony. When later evidence showed that testimony was falsified, the French army attempted to cover up their mistake. Dreyfus was retried and acquitted following pressure on the army after the information was leaked. Still, he was found guilty and only freed after a presidential pardon. Global Jewry was shocked that such blatant antisemitism could occur in a nation that proclaimed liberty, equality and fraternity. Scholars view the Dreyfus Affair as emblematic of the tension between Catholic and Republican forces in France. Church supporters, including the Vatican’s official newspaper, viciously condemned Dreyfus and called for attacks against Jews for treason.

I share these historic episodes to showcase the marginalization and oppression that Jews have experienced throughout history. I especially want to note that these acts were committed by governments often hand-in-hand with the Church or were used by religious groups for nefarious purposes. These events in Jewish history drove many Jews out of Europe, a significant number of whom found themselves in the U.S. This includes my family, who fled the pogroms in Lithuania in the late 19th century. Today, 69% of American Jews identify as Ashkenazi or Sephardic, descending from the Jews of Central/Eastern Europe and Spain, respectively. 

Although we may have left Europe, we carry our ancestors’ experiences with us. The intergenerational trauma of witnessing systematic antisemitism, often perpetrated by religious forces through the state, has left an indelible mark on American Jewry. Unfortunately, even Jews whose families came from places other than Europe also faced this religiously-fueled violence from the state. As a result of these experiences, American Jews have a unique attachment to the separation of church and state. We’re raised with the understanding that the lack of codified protection for religious liberty leaves us at risk. We’re weary of religious injections into politics, and that sentiment remains today.

A 2020 survey by Pew Research Center found that 63% of American Jews believe that houses of worship should stay out of politics. In fact, American Jews’ attachment to a strict wall of separation between church and state is often an explanation for our voting patterns. Scholar Kenneth D. Wald has argued that the Democratic Party’s historic emphasis on religious liberty and the separation of church and state is one of the primary contributors to Jews’ support for the party. The evidence is clear that we Jews take the separation of church and state seriously.

For that reason, I raise a concern about the deterioration of the wall between church and state in our country today. The rise of the Religious Right since the 1980s has led to candidates who fuel political division, promote disinformation and undermine democracy through religious rhetoric. Just last year, the Supreme Court turned its back on decades-old precedent to reintroduce prayer in public schools. As I’ve written before, the Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade also employed religious themes, ignoring the fact that some religions allow abortion in some circumstances, including Judaism. The Dobbs decision imposed the religious views of some on all Americans, eroding the separation of church and state further.

My worries don’t end there. Some members of this movement label themselves Christian nationalists, seeking to explicitly embed a Christian identity in our democratic institutions. Beyond breaking down the separation of church and state, we can see antisemitism and other anti-democratic efforts in these groups. For instance, alongside the Trump flags and crosses at the Jan. 6 insurrection, we also saw antisemitic messaging. Researchers at The Washington Post found a strong link between identification as a Christian nationalist with antisemitic views and QAnon beliefs. Ideologies like these can lend themselves to actual violence which we’ve already seen before. For instance, the shooter from the 2019 Poway synagogue shooting espoused Christian beliefs as the basis for his actions.

Let me be clear: My criticism is not against Christianity or any other faith. Religion is a beautiful experience as one seeks a spiritual connection. My critique is against the minority who misuse religion for ulterior motives. Part of the reason I came to Notre Dame was for interreligious dialogue; for which I’m grateful for all the friendships I’ve made. There is a reason for concern about the politicization of religion and the threats we face in our country today. I fear that history will repeat itself. For the sake of all our religions and our democracy, we have an obligation to stand against this hatred.

Blake Ziegler is a senior at Notre Dame studying political science, philosophy and constitutional studies. He enjoys writing about Judaism, the good life, pressing political issues and more. Outside of The Observer, Blake serves as president of the Jewish Club and a teaching assistant for God and the Good Life. He can be reached at @NewsWithZig on Twitter or bziegler@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.