Among the many shocking things about Eric Cantor’s defeat yesterday, the one that shocked me most is the realization that he is currently the only publicly-identified non-Christian Republican in Congress. Not just the highest-ranking Jewish Republican, or the highest-ranking non-Christian Republican, but the only non-Christian Republican in either chamber, at least according to a Pew analysis of the religious affiliations of Members of Congress conducted after the 2012 elections. It’s always possible, I suppose, that a non-Christian GOPer can be nominated later this year and elected in November, but for now, the estimated 27% of Americans who don’t identify themselves with some form of the Christian faith will likely have no representation among Republicans House and Senate members come next year.
Even if you only look at the disappearance of Republican Jews in Congress, that’s pretty amazing to those of us old enough to remember Jacob Javits and Rudy Boschwitz and Arlen Specter and Warren Rudman and Chic Hecht, all members of the Senate. Lord knows there’s been a significant Jewish presence among right-bent intellectuals over the years, from Milton Freidman to Frank Meyer to Ayn Rand and her “collective” (which included, of course, Alan Greenspan). That’s not to mention Jewish Republican journalists and flacks from the Kristol clan to William Safire and David Brooks and Jonah Goldberg and Jennifer Rubin, or major donors like Sheldon Adelson. And these are just the names that come to mind instantly.
Cantor, of course, was on track to become the first Jewish Speaker of the House, and played a central role in validating conservative criticisms of Democrats as unfriendly to Israel. I can recall a long moment in the rehearsal room for the 2008 Democratic Convention when a congressman scheduled to defend Barack Obama’s record on Middle East issues lobbied convention managers for additional time on grounds that “Eric Cantor will be given all the time he wants at the Republican convention to attack Obama as an enemy of Israel.” Now, presumably, Christian Right GOPers will fully assume control of this line of attack on Democrats in Congress.
But the bigger picture here is that at a time when Republicans are huffing and puffing to depict themselves as a Big Tent Party bound together by ideology rather than race or ethnicity or religion, they likely won’t be able to point to a single Member who isn’t at least formally a Christian. And yes, that’s shocking.