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Policing our own ranks

Anti-Semitism is not just a problem on the left

Nick Fuentes speaks to pro-Trump marchers on Nov. 14, 2020, in Washington, D.C. Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin

Policing our own ranks
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With shocking displays of anti-Semitism unfolding on college campuses across America in recent weeks, it is easy for conservatives to feel a sense of moral superiority. Progressives, it seems, are the real bigots. But we would be foolish to ignore the rot in our own ranks. In times of political polarization, the far right and far left sometimes appear to come full circle, mimicking one another even as they define themselves in opposition to one another. So it is today.

To be sure, it is hard to get a handle on the precise scope of the problem. At times, it has spilled over into the public eye, as when the vocal Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes met with President Trump in November 2022, or when Ron DeSantis’s campaign found itself in hot water over a campaign video accused of using neo-Nazi symbolism. More often, though, it lurks in the shadowy world of Twitter memes and pseudonymous Substacks. Many conservative pastors, however, report encountering various forms of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial in their churches, and when evangelical pastor Douglas Wilson (hardly known as a liberal) dared call out this phenomenon, it provoked a vitriolic backlash.

For most of us, such sentiments are probably hard to fathom. Why would any sane person want to exile or exterminate the Jewish race? Of course, to ask the question is to face the uncomfortable fact that throughout history, quite a lot of otherwise sane Christians have wanted to do so. The Third Reich was not quite so much of an outlier as we might like to think. During medieval Christendom, Jews were sometimes favored and protected, but often persecuted and exiled. The Reformation hardly improved matters, with Martin Luther’s 1543 diatribe On the Jews and Their Lies providing one of the most shocking specimens of anti-Judaism in Christian history. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, anti-Semitism—now subtly mutated from a predominantly religious to a predominantly racial category—was fairly commonplace in western Christian societies.

No doubt, this historical pedigree alone explains much of anti-Semitism’s appeal on today’s reactionary right. One of the best developments in recent American Christianity has been the success of “retrieval theology,” the attempt to escape the blinders of the present and renew our theological imaginations by drinking from the rich wells of the Christian tradition, from Augustine to Anselm to Calvin to Edwards. But this blast from the past is not without its perils. Older does not always equal better. Progressivism may be an idolatry, but the idea of progress itself is a Christian one. We should expect that the church, guided by the Spirit and chastened by historical experience, will be able to grow into fuller biblical faithfulness and moral maturity on issues such as slavery or Judaism.

Many Christians today are so tired of being bullied and gaslit by the false platitudes of our culture that they have decided it’s safest just to believe or do the opposite of whatever they’re told.

Related to this problem of overreactive retrieval is what one might call “the Opposite Syndrome.” Many Christians today, especially among younger generations, are so tired of being bullied and gaslit by the false platitudes of our culture that they have decided it’s safest just to believe or do the opposite of whatever they’re told. “No religion in the public square”; “men and women are interchangeable,” “Nazism is a grotesque evil”; “mask-wearing saves lives”; “systemic racism is real”—these statements have little in common except that they all represent what we might call the mainstream liberal consensus. Rather than going through the hard work to evaluate each on its own terms, some have decided it’s simpler to just reject them all: gender is real, masks are bad, Nazis are good. But this is a shameful dereliction of our duty to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Of course, it bears emphasizing that not all forms of anti-Semitism are the same. Some Christians may harbor real reservations about the policies of modern-day Israel, and feel that America has supported them too uncritically—in part because of variants of dispensationalist theology that shaped the politics of a previous generation. Such sentiments may be right or wrong, but they do not amount to toxic anti-Semitism, and should not be dismissed as such. Other conservatives may complain about the ways in which liberal Jewish elites such as George Soros or Hollywood producers have pushed an agenda destructive to traditional morality. This may not be an unjust complaint in itself, but it ignores the fact that plenty of progressive elites are not Jewish, and plenty of Jewish elites are not progressive.

In some settings, however, these milder complaints have served as a Trojan horse for truly vicious and virulent forms of anti-Semitism to get a foothold within Christian churches or conservative political spaces. This has been enabled by the perverse mentality of “no enemies on the right,” which claims that if conservatives are to win the culture war, they must not waste time policing their own ranks. As political strategy, this claim is dubious. Even if true, though, our response as Christians should be clear: If promoting anti-Semitism is what it takes to “win” politically, Christ would rather have us lose.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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