George W. Bush has been spending much of his post-presidency working to end the problems of poverty and disease ... kidding! Actually, he's been working a lot on his painting. Which I guess is perfectly fine, since it isn't like there are major world crises that would go unsolved were it not for Dubya's intervention. But friend of the magazine Sarah Posner informs us that Bush is also doing some speaking, and in front of at least one audience a touch more controversial than your run-of-the-mill Processed Meat Product Association or whoever is usually able to pony up the six-figure fee a former president demands:
Next week, former President George W. Bush is scheduled to keynote a fundraiser in Irving, Texas, for the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute, a group that trains people in the United States, Israel, and around the world to convince Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah. The organization's goal: to "restore" Israel and the Jews and bring about about the second coming of Christ.
Messianic Jews have long been controversial for Jews of all major denominations, who object to their proselytizing efforts and their message that salvation by Jesus is consistent with Jewish theology. Last year, Abraham Foxman, president of the Anti-Defamation League, told Politico that former Sen. Rick Santorum's appearance at an event hosted by another Messianic Jewish organization, the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, was "insensitive and offensive." And Commentary magazine, which bills itself as a "conservative American journal of politics, Judaism, social and cultural issues," noted, "it must be understood that the visceral distaste that the overwhelming majority of Jews have for the Messianics is not to be taken lightly." Many Messianic Jews are Christians who have adopted aspects of Jewish ritual observance; others are Jews who share the Christian belief that Jesus is the Messiah.
"Visceral distaste" pretty much captures it. But the evangelical community's relationship to Jews can be a tricky one. On one hand, they love Jews. Just love 'em to pieces. On the other hand, this makes Jews very uncomfortable. First, there's a weird cultural appropriation that happens, with evangelicals dancing the hora and singing "Hatikvah," which is enough to creep any Jew out. And of course nobody is a bigger "supporter" of Israel than evangelicals (I put that in quotation marks because what they support is not so much the country but a particular political faction within the country, couched in terms of the country itself). Even though evangelical support for Israel is both religious and political, if feels like cultural appropriation, too. And second, there's the whole problem of Jews being cast into the lake of fire. Conservative Christians may value Jews right now, but it's a prelude to their eventual conversion or condemnation once Jesus returns. I always think of an old New Yorker cartoon that showed a cat pulling a cart with a mouse sitting comfortably in it. A second mouse pleads with the first: "Think! Why is he being so nice to you?"
And visceral distaste doesn't even begin to describe how most Jews feel about messianic Jews, which back in the day we used to call Jews for Jesus. The basic sentiment is, if you want to convert to Christianity, go ahead, but don't try to tell me you're still Jewish. Maybe it's narrow-minded, but the lived experience of being Jewish in America is defined by not being Christian, just as the experience of any minority group is defined by being outside the majority. Messianic Jews are saying, "Yes, I'm wearing a Yankees cap and a Derek Jeter signature Jersey, and I want the Bronx Bombers to win the pennant, but I still consider myself a Red Sox fan." I'm sorry, but no.
Now when it comes to Bush, when he was president he was carefully ecumenical when he talked about religion. He had spent lots of time courting leaders of the religious right, and by the time he got elected they were convinced he was one of them. He may have said his favorite philosopher was Jesus when he was a candidate, but as president his tone changed. Whether because he genuinely thought it was the right thing to do or out of political prudence, he always made sure to give rhetorical shout-outs to people of many different faiths, and every once in a while he even nodded to those who don't believe in God. In the days after September 11 he repeatedly complimented Islam and said we weren't at war with the religion, even as some of his supporters were expressing the ugliest religious bigotry you could imagine. Whatever he was doing behind the scenes, in public Bush tried hard to present himself as a president for people of all faiths and no faith.
It isn't that I've gone soft on Bush with the passage of time; though I spent eight years criticizing him with all the vigor I could muster, this is something I complimented him for at the time. So it's somewhat surprising that he'd agree to speak to the messianic Jews. Maybe he just doesn't realize how his Jewish friends are going to take it.