WASHINGTON (JTA)—As Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin attempts to inject Barack Obama’s controversial former pastor back into the presidential campaign, the Republican vice-presidential candidate is facing increasing questions about her own associations with clergymen.
This week, in an interview with William Kristol for his New York Times column, Palin suggested that more attention should be paid to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, calling his sermons “appalling” and arguing that Obama had effectively condoned the comments because he didn’t leave the church.
Obama supporters in the Jewish community counter that they are ready to fight back with their own barrage of guilt-by-association attacks. They note Palin’s presence in church when speakers praised Jews for Jesus, suggested that terrorism in Israel was divine retribution for rejecting Christianity and argued that corruption would end if Christians took control of the financial sector.
In addition, a prominent Democratic strategist and liberal bloggers have responded to Republican efforts to link Obama to a domestic terrorist-turned-education activist by noting that John McCain once served on the board of an organization accused of anti-Semitism.
Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, reiterated his objections to such attacks, but said that if Republicans are going to engage in them, they should “have to answer for their own problems.”
“What’s good for the goose,” he said, “is good for the gander.”
Last spring, during the Democratic primaries, a firestorm erupted over Wright, Obama’s longtime pastor and a man the U.S. senator from Illinois had identified as a mentor. After video clips surfaced of Wright shouting “God damn America” on the Sunday after the Sept. 11 attacks, and criticizing U.S. support of Israel, Obama eventually cut ties with the retiring pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
In recent weeks, the Republican Jewish Coalition has run advertisements playing up Wright’s controversial comments and Obama’s connection to him. Palin, meanwhile, has taken the lead in injecting the issue into the national political conversation.
Some Democrats say this is a risky maneuver, given the emerging details about clergymen who have appeared in her churches. Two weeks before being tapped for the GOP ticket, Palin was in attendance at her current congregation—Wasilla Bible Church—when a leader of Jews for Jesus described terrorist attacks against Israel as “judgment” against those who have not accepted Christianity.
While a spokesman for Palin has said that the Republican running mate rejects this view, the McCain-Palin campaign has declined to say whether she shares her pastor’s general support for Jews for Jesus—a group that Jewish organizations accuse of using deceptive tactics because it tells people they can embrace Jesus and still remain true to Judaism.
Asked this week whether the Alaska governor would condemn the missionary group, McCain-Palin campaign spokesman Michael Goldfarb told JTA that “vice-presidential candidates cannot be in the business of condemning religious groups who do not commit violence” in a country that guarantees “freedom of religion.”
Goldfarb added that it is “extremely inappropriate for any elected official” to comment “on any religious group” and its mission. “That’s a fundamental breach of the separation of church and state,” he said.
Fred Zeidman, co-chairman of the Republican Party’s Jewish outreach in 2008, said in an interview with Shalom TV last month that Palin “needs to answer” questions about her feelings on Jews for Jesus “to have any credibility for all citizens. I don’t think there’s any question about that. And if the answers are not to the liking of the Jewish community, I think that becomes problematic.”
On Monday, Zeidman told JTA that the campaign’s response “was not the best answer in the world.” He added that he “would love to hear” Palin’s thoughts on the issue “from her mouth.”
Zeidman was also quick to emphasize his view that Obama’s 20 years in Wright’s church was a much bigger issue than Palin’s attendance at one speech at her church.
Goldfarb, the campaign spokesman, said Palin wouldn’t be opposed to talking about her religious beliefs, provided she was asked about them by interviewers in the next few weeks.
Attention has started to shift to Palin’s involvement in a second service, this one in 2005 at the Wasilla Assembly of God church, just a few days before she announced her run for governor. The video of the service first gained attention because it shows a Kenyan pastor, Thomas Muthee, blessing Palin, and urging Jesus to protect her from “the spirit of witchcraft.”
In recent days, however, critics increasingly have focused on the speech that the clergyman gave before he brought Palin to the stage.
Muthee called for “God’s kingdom” to “infiltrate” seven aspects of society, including economics.
“It is high time that we have top Christian businessmen, businesswomen, bankers, you know, who are men and women of integrity, running the economics of our nations,” he said. “That’s what we are waiting for. That’s part and parcel of transformation. If you look at the Israelites, you know, that’s how they won. And that’s how they are, even today. When we will see that, you know, the talk transport us in the lands. We see, you know, the bankers. We see the people holding the paths. They are believers. We will not have the kind of corruption that we are hearing in our societies.”
Given Muthee’s linking of Israelites and banks, some observers and critics have concluded that the statement was anti-Jewish. But, a McCain adviser countered, when read carefully it is clear that the statement was not at all critical of Jews.
The ‘Israelites’ video
The adviser, John Beerbower, said that the term Israelite “refers to the biblical kingdom, not the modern state,” and that Muthee is speaking of the “restoration of the Davidic kingdom,” a key element of evangelical Protestantism. He added that the statement can be read as a “compliment” to Jews, because he is actually saying that the Israelites were people of “integrity,” and still are today.
As for Muthee’s comments about wanting to see Christian men and women running the country’s economy, Beerbower said the clergyman was merely expressing a desire to see the Christian men and women who are in those positions act with integrity.
Dewey Wallace, a professor of religion at George Washington University who teaches on Christianity in the United States, agreed that the reference to “Israelites” could be viewed as “a bit of a compliment” to the Jewish people. But he said Muthee’s reference to “top Christian businessmen, businesswomen” went beyond a desire for men and women of “integrity” in banking; rather, it’s a wish for evangelical Christians to serve in those posts.
He noted, though, that Muthee was not targeting Jews with his comments, but all non-born-again Christians.
“I don’t think Jews need to be more concerned than Episcopalians,” Wallace said.
Goldfarb noted that Palin had actually left Wasilla Assembly of God as a member in 2002 and was only visiting that day. He argued that just because Palin sat in the audience or came up on stage did not mean she agreed with all of Muthee’s remarks—which, he added, were somewhat difficult to understand.
Rabbi Jack Moline, religious leader of a synagogue in Alexandria, Va. and a leader of the new group Rabbis for Obama, downplayed the importance of Muthee’s blessing of Palin. He said that what people do in their house of worship can look foreign to anyone who doesn’t have a background in that tradition.
Another front in the “guilt by association” war was opened up on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” when Democratic strategist Paul Begala pointed to McCain’s stint on the board of the U.S. Council for World Freedom. Begala identified the council as an “ultra-conservative, right-wing group” that the Anti-Defamation League said had increasingly become a gathering place for extremists, racists and anti-Semites.
“That’s not John McCain,” Begala said, but warned that the GOP candidate “does not want to play guilt by association or this thing will blow up in his face.”
An ADL spokesman said the group was currently looking for a copy of that report, which was published in 1981.
A New York Times article from 1986 reported that the ADL, in a letter to the group’s founder, John Singlaub, said that since he took over in 1981, the retired major general had “brought about a considerable cleansing of the organization.”
An Arizona Republic article from that same year said McCain had been trying to cut ties with the group for two years.
Singlaub told The Associated Press on Monday that he didn’t recall McCain’s efforts to leave the group, but he also said the Republican was not an active participant in the organization.