Axing the wrong questions after Brat-Cantor stunner

Axing the wrong questions after Brat-Cantor stunner June 13, 2014

There’s analysis, and there’s hack ‘n’ slash. When blindsided by the come-from-behind election of David Brat over Virginia’s longtime congressman Eric Cantor, many mainstream media fell back on the latter. Often with dull, rusty blades.

Brat is a (gasp) fiscal conservative, some pundits said. He’s an (gasp #2) evangelical, said others. And a Calvinist. And a Catholic. And still others insinuated that he’s a closet anti-Semite, or his supporters are, or something.

Let’s take the last first. In the otherwise distinguished Wall Street Journal, Reid Epstein seizes on something that Brat wrote three years ago:

David Brat, the Virginia Republican who shocked House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) Tuesday, wrote in 2011 that Hitler’s rise “could all happen again, quite easily.”

Mr. Brat’s remarks, in a 2011 issue of Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, came three years before he defeated the only Jewish Republican in Congress.

Whoa. Linking the Holocaust with the defeat of a Jew. What sinister intent can we draw from that? Well, as Epstein himself says, Brat was dissecting Nietzsche’s idea of the “weak modern Christian democratic man,” and warned believers not to become passive in the face of massive evil:

Hitler came along, and he did not meet with unified resistance. I have the sinking feeling that it could all happen again, quite easily. The church should rise up higher than Nietzsche could see and prove him wrong. We should love our neighbor so much that we actually believe in right and wrong, and do something about it.

So Epstein reports Brat’s horror at Nazism, yet he still tries somehow to tie Brat with some kind of Holocaust thinking. This amounts to a flailing attack on a level with medieval battle-ax fighting.

The New York Times tried to have it both ways in its own post-game analysis. It confronted a question by on whether Cantor lost because of his Jewishness. The Times answer was “no” — a good call for someone who has held public office in Virginia for more than two decades.

But then the writer tries to show that Brat’s familiarity with Christian talk played better with Virginia voters than did Cantor’s more general moral language, mustering a couple of political “analysts” to agree with her on that. Among them was David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report:

“Many conservative candidates running in similar primaries have used evangelical language and imagery to establish a connection and comfort level with voters. Cantor can’t do that, he was never able to do that, and to his credit, he never pretended to be someone he is not.”

To which GetReligion alum M.Z. Hemingway of The Federalist replies with three speeches where Cantor himself used Judeo-Christian language. And in one of them, reader comments are laced with slurs against Zionism — a belief of Jews and conservative Christians alike.

If you’re looking for religious prejudice, read those comments. But strap on your plate armor first.

Then there’s Charles Pierce’s column in Esquire, an odd hybrid of anti-religious jihad and political polemic. Pierce shows some basic knowledge of the actual campaign issues in northern Virginia, like immigration reform and the debt ceiling — both of which he differs with Brat.

Then he spews a package of distortions about Brat’s religiosity:

He got his undergraduate degree at Hope College in Michigan, which is run by the Reformed Church in the United States, a conservative evangelical wing of the United Church Of Christ. He then got a Masters in Divinity at Princeton, which is a very conservative seminary and now, according to his website, Dave attends St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

Leaving aside the misnaming — Hope College is affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, not the Reformed Church in the United States — the RCA is a separate denomination, not a “wing” of the UCC. Nor is it any more conservative than most other mainline members of the National Council of Churches.

And where did Pierce get the idea that Princeton Theological Seminary is “very conservative”? Certainly not the theologians who left because of encroaching theological liberalism to found Westminster Theological Seminary. And Pierce totally ignores the first line on Brat’s resume: a Ph.D. in economics from the very liberal American University. Do facts matter?

Hemingway can’t generate enough disdain for the brutal ignorance she saw throughout mainstream media after the Brat upset, when it came to religion issues:

Great work, reporters. You didn’t really shed much light on Dave Brat, free market economics professor, but you did reveal much about your treatment of politicians with religious views you dislike.

While I agree with her substantive points — and her column was a virtual roadmap through the melee — I also feel just a touch grateful for the few who can bury the ax and see news for what it is. Those would include, which fielded six reporters for a fairly friendly, factual piece — fleshing out a portrait of an idealistic academic who sounds more libertarian than teabagger.

I’d also pin a gold star on CNBC’s Drew Sandholm, who interviewed Brat for his show Squawk on the Street.

The interview led with some religious talk, with Brat saying the vote was “basically a miracle, you know, from God straight through the people who worked so hard for me.” But the interview also allowed Brat to sound his themes of reform — in immigration, the national debt and the U.S. tax structure.

Brat said he has compassion for immigrants coming to the U.S. in search of a better life. But instead of allowing more people to enter, he suggested doing more to improve life in the world’s third world countries.

“You have to get rid of dictatorships and encourage strong rule of law and property rights in those home countries, so they get rich like us,” he said. “The reason people come here is because we’re the richest nation on Earth.”

To me, that’s another miracle: someone in the mainstream media carving apart what he sees and hears from what he thinks of it.

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19 responses to “Axing the wrong questions after Brat-Cantor stunner”

  1. How many “liberals” have said things like “The rise of Hitler could all happen again”? !

  2. What I wish that journalists had touched more upon was Professor Brat’s comments regarding the possible rise of another Hitler and regarding replacing Third World dictatorships. Are these statements evidence of another office holder (presuming he wins in November) believing that the United States has some God-given mandate to continually intervene militarily despite the further costs in both blood and treasure?
    I think this is relevant because both the invasion of Iraq and the use of torture by the Bush Administration had wide support among many Christian denominations (with the exception of the governing body of my faith, the USCCB)

  3. “who sounds more libertarian than teabagger”
    Did you feel that is appropriate for an article that is trying to get things right? Is that the term that members of the TEA party prefer to be called?

      • Perhaps so, but the term has certainly taken on a negative and pejorative meaning since then. I must confess, I had to look it up to find out what all of the snickering was in relation to the phrase.

      • “Teabagging” is a sexual practice you really, really do not want to know about, and “liberals” use the epithet as a deliberate slur.

      • It is no longer 2009. These days I have seen it used primarily as a pejorative, often in an adolescent sense of snickering at how movement originators were unaware of the sexual slang meeting. It’s inappropriate.

  4. I just read Epstein’s column this morning, and I was floored by the passive-aggressive manner in which he attempted to suggest that what Brat had really meant in his 2011 article was “Gee, what we really need right now is another Hitler!” And, by extension, that the voters who elected Brat had acted on an anti-Semitic impulse. Because, you know, that’s how those “conservative Christians” are.

    I expected to find some sort of argument, but never found one. Maybe Epstein was just jumping on the bandwagon, and his heart wasn’t in it, because the most he does is to throw out a few leading comments followed by long quotations from Brat’s article in “Interpretation” that undermine the impression he is trying to create.

    Here is one setup: “But it is the reference to Hitler’s Germany that is likely to turn heads during Mr. Brat’s first full day as a tea party star.” So, we are led to expect incendiary, maybe even shocking remarks. Then, we read Brat’s comment: “Hitler came along, and he did not meet with unified resistance. I have the sinking feeling that it could all happen again, quite easily.”

    What? This is it? THIS is the “reference to Hitler’s Germany that is likely to turn heads”? Why would this unremarkable observation turn anyone’s head?

    Of course, Epstein doesn’t directly state that Brat wants another Hitler to come to power, and that his conservative Christians supporters threw Cantor out of office because they want the same thing. Instead, he attempts to use the power of suggestion to get the point across, but the quoted comments from Brat’s article fail to support that point, and as a result, the attempt fails. Epstein could claim that readers who get that impression have misinterpreted his intent, and that he was simply emphasizing certain points of Brat’s article in order to give readers an idea of what Cantor’s replacement believes. Yet, Epstein never successfully conveys why we should link Brat’s defeat of the “only Jewish Republican in Congress” to comments he made in a scholarly Christian journal about the weak Christian response to the rise of Hitler.

  5. Consider Epstein’s platform- the open borders Wall Street Journal. They have never shown any restraint in demonizing their opponents.

  6. “the governing body of my faith, the USCCB”

    The USCCB is most definitely NOT the governing body of any faith.
    It is more like the AMA and the ABA. It has no governing authority over the members of the Catholic faith.

    • Good point, Julia. American bishops answer not to the USCCB, but directly to the Vatican. I should have mentioned that in my piece.

    • Of course it was, Julia. And the more of my columns you read, the more atrocious puns you’ll see. 🙂

  7. “This amounts to a flailing attack on a level with medieval battle-ax fighting.” Actually, medieval battle-ax fighting required a degree of self-control, extensive, effective, practice in one’s chosen field of endeavor, and clear thinking than is display in that *silly* article.

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