Cruz’s Litmus Test For Middle-Eastern Christians

You may have given passing notice, as I did, to an incident last week where Ted Cruz stalked off the stage of an event to honor persecuted Middle Eastern Christians because he encountered boos when insisting that Israel is the best friend Christians in the region could ever hope for. I figured Cruz was beefing up his reputation for pro-Israeli zealotry in pursuit of the votes of very different Christians (the kind that tend to participate in the Iowa Caucuses and South Carolina primary), and didn’t give it much thought.

But Ross Douthat chastised Cruz and the conservatives who immediately cheered him in no uncertain terms:

If Cruz felt that he couldn’t in good conscience address an audience of persecuted Arab Christians without including a florid, “no greater ally” preamble about Israel, he could have withdrawn from the event. The fact that he preferred to do it this way instead says a lot — none of it good — about his priorities and instincts.

The fact that he was widely lauded says a lot about why, if 2,000 years of Christian history in the Middle East ends in blood and ash and exile, the American right no less than the left and center will deserve a share of responsibility for that fate.

Douthat predictably got a lot of grief for his column, and now he’s come back with a more defensive argument, full of all sorts of disclaimers about the good faith of Cruz’s defenders and Israel’s benign treatment of its own religious minorities. But he doesn’t back down from his criticism of Cruz himself:

[I]n this world, most Middle Eastern Christians are in one of the following three positions relative to Israel: It’s an occupying power, at best a lesser evil (compared to Hamas) but certainly not a benevolent ally by any reasonable definition of the term; it’s an erstwhile ally which they feel left them to reap the Islamist whirlwind after years of loyal cooperation; or it’s a far-off country with few ways to aid them and which they stand to face a great deal of immediate danger for being associated with in any way. Combine these positions with the stark reality of ongoing genocide, and I think it should be clear why so many of us think Cruz was wrong to address an audience of Middle Eastern Christians as he did: Because the propositions he was advancing are a description of how an ideal world might be, not of the world they actually inhabit, and because it’s unreasonable to ask people whose communities are on the knife’s edge of destruction to pay homage to a vision that they either have good historical reasons to dissent from, or feel they cannot endorse for fear of making their own situation worse.

And Douthat doesn’t extend his tolerant attitude towards Cruz’s defenders in this affair to the junior senator from Texas himself:

Based on what I’ve seen from him these last two years, I rather strongly doubt the purity of Ted Cruz’s motivations in this whole affair….

I would just suggest, to Cruz’s defenders, that it’s the people currently being ground under history’s wheel who most deserve the benefit of the doubt, and that litmus tests that are understandable in other contexts need to be applied more flexibly in this one. With death knocking at their doors, Middle Eastern Christians don’t need to be told who their friends are; they need to be shown the kind of understanding that true friendship presently requires.

Now if Ross Douthat were not addressing people on his own “team,” he’d probably just come right out and call Cruz a demagogue and a bully who used a rally for persecuted people to score ideological points. But given the circumstances, I think he deserves some real credit for calling Cruz out.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.