My friend Rick Shenkman, who runs History News Network, recently published his new book Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter. Considering the legions of Democrats convinced that “Jesus was a community organizer; Pilate was a governor” qualifies as sound political discourse, I’d have to answer “pretty damn stupid.”
According to Rush Limbaugh (citing Lexis-Nexis), the phrase was devised on September 4, 2008, by a Washington Post blogger. As of this writing, 10 days later, Google lists 13,300 hits for the phrase. Most seem to be from the left-wing echo chambers of the Internet, where Daily Kosites, Huffingtonistas, and Obamists have separated virtual shoulders, giving each other electronic high-fives for their wit. But not all are e-cranks: no less a journalistic paragon than Tom Brokaw hit Rudy Giuliani with the phrase on the September 14 Meet the Press. And even some high-ranking Democrats have jumped on the bandwagon, most notably former Gore campaign chair and current DNC member Donna Brazile and Tennessee Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen. Brazile repeated the line on CNN last week, while Representative Cohen dredged it up on the House floor.
The phrase was intended to counteract the anti-Obama jab by GOP vice-presidential candidate Governor Sarah Palin that even a small-town mayor — her job before becoming Alaska’s chief executive — has more responsibility than a community organizer, Obama’s self-described seminal experience. Palin was in turn responding to Democrat belittling of her as the “former mayor of a town of 9,000 people.” (Of course, they can’t exactly call her “the governor of a state as large in land area as all the blue states of 2004 combined.”)
This Democrat trope is qualitatively different than the preceding merely political barbs, however. By invoking the founder of the world’s largest religion — considered not merely human but divine by orthodox Christians for two millennia — as well as the Roman official who sentenced him to death, the Democrats are not just raising the insult bar but moving the rhetoric onto a field of battle that is supposed to be off limits.
First, it constitutes the religious left injecting religion into this campaign. It’s an article of faith among the religious left and their secular media supporters that only the religious right ever contaminates the public square with religion, but that has been demonstrably wrong since at least the 1960s — when the civil rights movement was led by black and white ministers. Only when conservative (usually Protestant) clergy got involved in politics in the 1970s and started invoking Jesus in support of causes like ending abortion did the media suddenly find something wrong with religious involvement in politics. Of course, the religious and secular left often cast what are to a large extent religious issues — abortion and homosexality, to name but the most inflammatory — as purely political or civil rights ones, and their willing accomplices in the media rarely, if ever, call them on it. The same holds true now.
If any prominent Republicans supporting McCain had said that “Jesus was a torture victim; Caiaphas was a law professor,” they would have been drawn and quartered by the media. But I’ve yet to see criticism of Brazile or Cohen for injecting the views of the religious left into the 2008 presidential campaign. (For you Democrats who, like Howard Dean, still think Job is in the New Testament — Caiaphas was the high priest on the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council that interacted with the Roman authorities in Jesus’ time.)
Second, it’s ahistorical to say that “Jesus was a community organizer.” According to Wikipedia, community organizing “is a process by which people living in close proximity to each other are brought together to act in their common self-interest. Community organizers act as … coordinators of programs for different agencies. … Community organizers work actively, as do … social workers, in community councils of social agencies and in community-action groups.” What’s striking about that definition — besides its poor grammar and redundancy — is how very little it has to do with Jesus’ life and ministry.
The “community” Jesus “organized” would have to be defined as primarily the core 12 apostles (13 if we count that important, but late-arriving, St. Paul), although we should perhaps include the 70 missionaries of Luke chapter 10. Looking at these two groups in the Gospels, it’s obvious that 1) neither group consisted of folks who lived “in close proximity,” and in fact contained members from different areas of Roman-occupied Judea; 2) neither the 12 nor the 70 were concerned with “common self-interest” but, on the contrary, were united around Jesus’ call for them to deny their own self-interest; 3) Jesus didn’t exactly have any Roman imperial social agencies from which to apply for grants, especially for messianic claimants. Jesus called these men — sorry, Dan Brown fanatics, the Gospels are clear that the 12 and the 70 were all male, a fact that would get Him disqualified for community organizing on Chicago’s South Side, no doubt — to take up a cross and follow Him, not to figure out how to write grant proposals to the first-century version of ACORN, had such a thing even existed. He also empowered them to heal the sick, drive out demons (not Republicans), and forgive sins. Therefore, “community organizing” doesn’t even remotely describe what Jesus did.
More importantly, the third problem with this trope is that it is an attempt — conscious or not — to undermine the gravity of Jesus’ role in Christianity and in history. From Albert Schweitzer to Episcopal “Bishop” John Spong to Oprah, outside-the-Christian-mainstream critics have tried to make Jesus only a man with a plan, a social reformer, a self-help guru, you name it — anything but the crucified and resurrected Son of God as described in the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds. Community organizers don’t raise the dead, heal the blind and sick, walk on water, or return from death themselves.
Liberals are free to disbelieve what orthodox Christianity teaches about Jesus, but they are not free to ahistorically and insultingly appropriate Him for their own narrow political agendas, no more than the religious right is. Ms. Brazile is Catholic, so she should know better; Representative Cohen is Jewish, so he can be forgiven for not, although it’s worth observing that were a Christian legislator to opine publicly on a non-Christian religious figure — saying, for example, “Mohammed was (merely) a community organizer” — the critical outcry, and not just from Muslims, would almost certainly be deafening (at best); so why the double standard when a non-Christian makes a glib, politically expedient remark about Christianity’s founder?
Fourth, it’s ahistorical to equate Palin, a state governor in the 21st-century American republic, with Pontius Pilate, a provincial governor in the first-century Roman Empire. It’s pathetic, really, that this has to be explained to historically ignorant Democrats, but Sarah Palin was elected to her office, not appointed by an emperor — and no amount of jejune Bush-bashing will change that. As for responsibility and administrative experience, Alaska is about 23 times larger than the Roman Judea under Pilate’s watch. To be fair to Pilate, however, Alaska is not full of oppressed, resentful, conquered people longing for a messiah — unless you count the folks at Palin’s church, as the media does. And unlike Pilate, Palin has not had to order the slaughter of any such rebellious natives, much less of any prominent rebel leaders with messianic pretensions — which of course is the implied main point when Democrats analogize Palin to Pilate.
Fifth, the most egregious aspect of the “Pontius Palin” trope is the implied messianic role it imputes to Barack Obama and the fuel it throws on extant political fires. We’ve all heard and read about the deliverer, bordering on messianic, role imputed to Barack Obama by his supporters — and not just Chris Mathews — whether or not Obama buys into it himself. It’s insulting enough, both historically and religiously, to imply Obama’s messianism by suggesting he was, like Jesus, a community organizer; it’s even more offensive to imply, as Democrats clearly are in equating the jobs of Pilate and Sarah Palin, that Obama is a messiah targeted for liquidation.
We can already look forward, should McCain win, to cries of “the Republicans stole another election” and, of course, “America is racist.” Will we also be treated to post-messiah stress syndrome, in which Obama’s loss will take on not just political and cultural but eschatological overtones for his disappointed followers? Rhetoric like that employed by the left’s bloggers, Brokaw, Brazile, and Cohen make that increasingly likely. Some, like Phyllis Chesler here on PJM, have even posited that a new American civil war is a real possibility should Obama lose. To use the Pilate analogy appropriately: do Brokaw, Brazile, Cohen, and the Democratic left really want that blood on their hands?