Secrets lie buried deep beneath the substrata of Western culture. Old divisions and old affinities, though, force their way to the surface in surprising ways. The border between Catholic and Protestant Germany, as Freud observes, retraced the old frontier between Romans and heathens. The American Civil War replayed the ancient war between Anglo-Saxons and Celts. Yet nothing stranger has occurred in recent history than America’s shock of self-recognition after Senator Joseph Lieberman was asked to stand for the vice-presidency. The truth is that America is a Jewish nation.
Nominally, America is a Christian nation, but it is a peculiarly Jewish sort of Christian nation. Of course I do not refer to the paranoid perception that wealthy Jews exercise disproportionate influence upon American politics and media. The truth dwarfs the most lurid nightmares of the conspiracy theorists. It is America’s political DNA that is Jewish.
No one is more astonished than the Americans, who have embraced Sen Lieberman with the impassioned nostalgia of a man reunited with a long-lost brother. Jews have risen to prominence in American politics before. But Lieberman is not just a Jew by birth – like Madeleine Albright, William Cohen, or Sandy Berger – but a real Jew, a Sabbath-observing, shrimp-eschewing, three-times-a-day praying religious Jew.
An August 12 Washington Post poll found that 51 percent of respondents were more likely to vote for Lieberman because he is an Orthodox Jew. American Christians are dumbfounded at their own exultation. American Jews, 9 of 10 of whom are not Orthodox, are stupified. Al Gore cannot believe his luck. Almost overnight, Gore’s standing in the polls flipped from a deficit of 19 points to nearly even with Governor George W Bush. New York Times columnist William Safire warned August 10 that Lieberman may draw Christian Evangelical votes away from the Republicans.
Whether or not Senator Lieberman actually becomes vice-president, an irreversible change has occurred in American politics whose repurcussions will be felt around the world, first of all in the Middle East. The issue is not whether America will support the Israeli or Palestinian position over Jerusalem. In its heart of hearts, America is Jerusalem. To understand this phenomenon we must consider the origins of the American Republic.
The concept of individual liberty later embodied in America’s Declaration of Independence began with the 16th century Protestant rebellion against the Catholic powers, in particular, the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule. Red, white and blue were the colors of Protestant leader William of Orange. Quite correctly, the Catholic Church labeled Protestantism a “Judaizing heresy.” Spain expelled its enormous Jewish community in order to suppress Protestantism. It succeeded, but thereby ensured its own decline.
Martin Luther, the leader of the German Reformation, adapted the critique of medieval Jewish rabbis in order to cleanse Christianity of pagan elements. Luther and his circle obtained Jewish help in translating the Hebrew Bible into German. Most important, Luther accepted the Jewish argument that Original Sin (a sine qua non of Christianity) could not be reconciled with Free Will. To keep Original Sin, he threw out Free Will, inventing instead the otherwise incomprehensible doctrine of Predestination.
On the heels of Luther’s Judaizing reform, though, came more extreme Judaizers such as the Spanish theologian Michael Servetus. Luther had expelled saints, Virgin Mary, the Eucharist, worship of relics, indeed most of the pagan practices that syncretic Christianity had absorbed over the centuries. Well and good, said Servetus, but why not also get rid of the ultimate pagan concept, namely the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? The three-in-one-God, Servetus complained, “incurs the ridicule of the Jews.” That went too far. The Geneva reformer John Calvin burned Servetus at the stake. Luther decided the Jews were too dangerous and called for their annihilation. Servetus’s followers founded Unitarianism, which acknowledged the Jewish God but not the divinity of Christ.
A red thread leads from the “Unitarian” wing of the Reformation to the American Revolution. Several of the founding fathers, including John Adams (America’s second president) were Unitarians. Some, like Jefferson and Franklin, were Deists, which amounts to the same thing. Alexander Hamilton was Jewish by birth. Historians of Christian persuasion, such as the redoubtable Paul Johnson, twist themselves into pretzels over the uncontested fact that not one founder of the American Republic believed in the Divinity of Christ. Abraham Lincoln, America’s president during the 1861-1865 Civil War, belonged to no Church and believed in no Christian doctrine.
Yet every one of the Founding Fathers, and Lincoln to boot, expressed profound religious sentiments. The Deist Jefferson wrote that no republic could survive without a religious foundation. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, carved into the marble of his memorial in Washington, is from start to finish a paraphrase from the King James translation of the Hebrew Bible.
Most Americans at the time of the Declaration of Independence professed Christianity, to be sure. But the English Dissenters who founded Massachusetts found themselves more at home in the “Old,” or Hebrew, Testament than in the Christian Gospels. They considered themselves a new Israel, coming to the Promised Land, building the City on a Hill – a New Jerusalem. Farmers named their children Levi, Judah, Isaiah, Abraham, Isaac, Joshua – after Hebrew patriarchs, not Christian saints. In short, they were as close to Jews as anyone might be without actually professing Judaism, and without having met a living Jew. American Christians really are hidden Jews.
Much had changed by the time substantial numbers of Jews arrived in America late in the 19th century. Both the High Deism of the founders and the Old Testament religion of the farmers had disappeared. Americans felt little in common with the prosperous and liberal German Jews, who did their best to be taken for Protestants, nor the poorer Eastern European Jews. America’s elite aped the genteel anti-Semitism of their European cousins.
American Jews worked their way from the periphery of society to the mainstream, first through sports (especially prize-fighting) and entertainment, then through the professions. En route to economic success, 90 percent of American Jews gave up the strict religious observance to which Sen Lieberman adheres. Lieberman violates all the stereotypes of American Jewish life. He is a fierce antagonist of Hollywood, the only industry which Jews may be said to dominate. He is a centrist rather than a leftist, and deeply religious rather than secular.
For American Christians, the ascent of an orthodox Jew to a leading position in politics is the Bible come to life, the presence of the ancient world of the Hebrew prophets. It reawakens the collective memory of the purpose for which the American Republic was created. And the consequences of such awakening never should be underestimated.